Apr 30, 2015

Preview: Lots of Choices for Classic Film Fans at Seattle International Film Festival 2015

The Seattle International Film Festival announced its 2015 line-up today, and it is going to be a fantastic year for classic film fans. SIFF has long offered a bold and fascinating program of archival movies, but as I enter my third year of covering the festival, now in its 41st year, I have never been more giddy about the selections.

There will be a whopping 19 archival films at the festival. This will probably be more than I will be able to attend, but the selections are so amazing that it will be tough to miss anything. Among the highlights:

Celebrating 25 years: Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation

I was most excited to hear that SIFF will be celebrating Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation's quarter century by presenting eight movies at the festival. Four more films will be presented at Trader Joe's Silent Movie Mondays, which is a beloved Seattle tradition at the Paramount.

I'll have more details to share about when and where these films will be shown, but just look at this list, copied directly from SIFF press materials (note there's only seven titles in the SIFF section, I haven't determined yet if one is missing, or there are actually not eight films). It's an inspired mix of countries, time periods and genres (of course I'm thrilled to see a Mary Pickford movie in there):

Festival Selections--

Alyam, Alyam, d: Ahmed El Maanouni (Morocco 1978)
Black Girl, d: Ousmane Sembène (Senegal 1966) 
Caught, d: Max Ophüls (USA 1949) 
The Color of the Pomegranates, d: Sergei Parajanov (Armenia 1969) 
The Dark Mirror, d: Robert Siodmak (USA 1946) 
Rebel Without a Cause, d: Nicholas Ray (USA 1955) 
The Red Shoes, d: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (United Kingdom, 1948) 

The Silents (Paramount)--

The Mark of Zorro, d: Fred Niblo (USA, 1920)
My Best Girl, d: Sam Taylor (USA, 1927); 
The Unholy Three, d: Tod Browning (USA, 1925) 
Snow White, d: J. Searle Dawley (USA, 1916).

I'm sure it will be particularly stunning to see the vibrant colors of The Red Shoes on the big screen. 

The Apu Trilogy

I was very young when I first saw Indian director Satyajit Ray's famous trilogy, and I don't think I fully appreciated what it had to offer. It centers on Bengali villager Apu, following him from childhood to fatherhood. I'm looking forward to seeing Song of the Little Road/Pather Panchali (1955), The Unvanquished/Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959) in a theater, where I can become fully immersed in the story.

Son of the Sheik

The Alloy Orchestra, which specializes in accompanying films, will be performing live with this 1926 film. I've always thought this Valentino flick was underrated and much more entertaining than The Sheik (1921). Early TCM Classic Film Festival attendees may remember the group's performance for a screening of Metropolis (1927) at the 2010 fest.

Spider Woman Double Feature

This program is sure to offer some interesting contrasts. The celebrated pianist Donald Sosin (who I enjoyed hearing at two SIFF 2014 presentations) will accompany Cave of the Spider Woman (1927). Then the Shaw Brothers version of the story, The Cave of Silken Web (1967) will be screened. How often do you see a double feature with a time gap like that?

A Tribute to Stewart Stern: Rebel Without a Cause Live Screenplay Reading

Seattle screenwriter and educator Stewart Stern passed on in 2014. He was a well-respected and generous member of the arts community. Giving his most famous screenplay the spotlight is a fitting tribute. The presentation also includes a screening of the film.

Saved From the Flames - A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips Through Time and Space 

I have been a fan of Serge Bromberg ever since his Lobster Films led the ten-year restoration effort to save George Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902). Since then, I've learned how much more he has done to preserve early film and make it available to the masses. I'm thrilled to have to chance to see him present this program at the festival. 

The Astrologer

For the past year, this supposedly insane 1975 film has always seemed to pop up in festivalgoer favorites lists. I'm going crazy with curiosity. Even the trailer is wild:

Now I finally get to see what all the fuss is about.

Apr 29, 2015

On DVD: Sleuthing and Intrigue in The Alphabet Murders (1966) and Where the Spies Are (1965)

Anita Ekberg in The Alphabet Murders

I recently enjoyed a pair of new Warner Archive releases starring Tony Randall and David Niven, two actors who can bring lightness to the darkest subject matter. They do just that in the jaunty, but deadly The Alphabet Murders (1966) and Where the Spies Are (1965).

Tony Randall takes on Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the amusingly twisted The Alphabet Murders. Directed by Frank Tashlin, the comic murder mystery bubbles with his trademark cartoonish gloss. Randall is delightfully campy as the fastidious sleuth, with a trim figure, shiny bald head and absolutely no sense of humor about himself.

Poirot finds himself on the case of a murderer who is killing victims with alliterative names in alphabetical order. The killer's calling card: a copy of the ABC guide to London discarded at the scene of the crime. When Amanda Beatrice Cross (initials ABC) nearly strangles him in a Turkish bath and claims she is a killer, he thinks the case is closed.

Randall as Poirot

The schizophrenic Amanda is not easily outwitted though and she enjoys playing games with the uptight Poirot. Followed by British Intelligence officer Robert Morley, who is under orders to keep an eye on the Belgian crime magnet, the detective backs the clever killer into a corner, but victory is hard to claim with this alphabet-fixated bombshell.

Though The Alphabet Murders could have been a lightly amusing romp, with Randall and Morley stomping straight-faced through whatever indignity faces them, it ends up being much more unhinged and marvelously messy thanks to Ekberg. As Amanda, she brings to mind Rod Taylor's comment that he had to end his turbulent affair with the star because being with her exhausted him.

Ekberg is just as wild as a dangerously attractive as a twisted killer who plunges recklessly into life, always with trouble in mind. It's one of her best roles, because she has found the perfect part to exploit the careless exuberance of her public persona. For all of Randall and Morley's comic skill, she dominates the movie, hovering over it all like a cobra ready to strike.

For Christie fans, there's an amusing Margaret Ruthford cameo in which she appears as the author's other famous sleuth Miss Marple.

Though Where the Spies Are is less vibrant than Alphabet, it is similarly energized by a charismatic female star. This time it is Francoise Dorleac, the French star whose name became synonymous with tragedy when she died at age 25 in a car accident.

While she is perhaps now more famous for being Catherine Deneuve's older sister, the Dorleac was a huge talent, as she demonstrated in Cul-De-Sac (1966) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). She would likely have been one of the queens of world cinema had she lived.

This isn't to say that star David Niven doesn't hold his own in this slightly lethargic, but always intriguing spy drama. The British actor may not have set off fireworks on the screen, but if an elegant, smooth-tempered lead was required, he always delivered and was never less than pleasant to see. Pleasant is the best way to describe his performance as gentleman doctor Jason Love.

There's a bit of World War II intrigue in Love's past, and so an old associate who recalls his skill talks him out of his holiday and convinces him to instead stop the assassination of a Middle Eastern official. Though there's nothing the doctor would rather do less, he hates violence and danger, the car-obsessed doctor is offered a rare vintage automobile as payment. He can't resist, so he flies to Beirut to go undercover.

There Love meets the much younger agent Vikki (Francois Dorleac), who charms him immediately. Though she is full of her own secrets, she returns his affection. The pair have little time for romance though, as Love's mission becomes increasingly complicated and it is clear that he can't handle the challenges of the job.

The film never quite builds up enough momentum; there's a curious lack of energy to it, but it has plenty of details to recommend it. With a snappy spy soundtrack and gorgeous 1960s Beirut scenery, it has a great feel and Niven is comfortable, if not terribly exciting in his role.

On the other hand, Dorleac doesn't need to do anything to be exciting. She can charm simply, with a smile, or a lightly spoken phrase. Her appeal is effortless. It was a thrill to catch a rare glimpse of her in a starring role.

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.

Apr 27, 2015

Book Review: George Sanders Plays Detective in Crime on My Hands and Stranger At Home

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Crime on My Hands
Craig Rice, George Sanders
Dean Street Press 2015 (Originally published 1944)

Stranger at Home 
Leigh Brackett, George Sanders
Deant Street Press 2015 (Originally published 1946)

I just whipped through a pair of vintage George Sanders mysteries, and to my great sorrow, there are no more. 

Crime on My Hands (1944) and Stranger at Home (1946) are two very different stories published under the actor's name, though primarily ghostwritten. The first is a comic whodunit, the other a bleaker noir tale. Each in their own way have the Sanders imprint though, and are enormously entertaining. Both are now available on eBook from Dean Street Press.

Craig Rice

Nearly twenty years before he wrote his autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (1960) (which I reviewed here), and before his defining screen role as Addison Dewitt in All About Eve (1950), George Sanders had built a reputation as a screen detective in The Saint and Falcon series. His success in these ventures was further exploited when he was paired with ghostwriters Craig Rice (aka Georgiana Ann Randolph Rice) and Leigh Brackett, to lend his name and image to Crime on My Hands and Stranger at Home respectively.

Leigh Brackett
There have been rumblings that Sanders also contributed to at least Crime on My Hands and perhaps Stranger at Home. Much like his memoirs, there is plenty of the Sanders persona in Crime, in which he appears as himself. It is easy to believe that he gave much of himself to the project, though whether he actually put pen to paper is debatable. It is less clear whether Sanders had any involvement in Stranger at Home, which features a character that is easy to envision the actor playing, but not quite as much of his more lightly suave public image.

The books are so different in tone, and adhere so closely to the particular style of each author, that it is almost certain that they are primarily written by Rice and Brackett. They are equally entertaining and both impressive examples of the skills these genre writers possessed.

Crime on My Hands is a comic mystery in which Sanders plays himself, a successful screen detective who is looking to break typecasting with a lead role in a cowboy picture. When an extra is shot in the head mid-scene, the actor, and amateur inventor, is forced to play detective for real in order to clear his name.

Sanders is surrounded by a huge cast of characters: extras, writers, producer, agents, director and stars. In the midst of this busy group, the primary characters rotate through the plot like players in an energetic farce. Though his life is often at stake, Sanders is perpetually amused, the peril is never greater than the laughs. The pace starts to slack a bit in the middle, where comic bits begin to stall the plot, but everything eventually gets back on track again for an enjoyably suspenseful finale.

Rice was known as "the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction," and so she was well matched with Sanders. Her backstage murder mystery is full of comic mishaps, sharply-worded one-liners and surprising descriptions, such as the hardboiled, but amusing line, "he went out the door and disappeared into the night like a drop of water disappearing down a drain." It's tough to write a comedy novel that's funny without being too aggressively jokey, but Rice gets the balance right. She especially gets Sanders' voice; you can almost hear him speaking.

While the sharpest of the witticisms seem to come from Rice, there are plenty of passages that read much like the dryly humorous style Sanders would adopt in his memoirs. There's also a great deal of the real actor in the character, including his interest in inventing and his skill in the kitchen, which he demonstrates by calmly preparing a mouthwatering steak and kidney pie in a moment of danger.

The much darker Stranger at Home plays as a bleak, straight-ahead noir. It was perhaps too racy and brutal to be filmed back in the day, but the tone and the characters are much like the crime films of that period. It features Sanders-type anti-hero Michael Vickers, a Hollywood luxury store owner who returns home after going missing for four years.

Though successful in business, Vickers is not a loveable sort, instead drawing friends who are in awe of his power and aloof confidence. He is welcomed warily by his estranged wife, her resentful assistant and companion, and the men with whom he was on vacation when he vanished.

Vickers suspects that one of these three men is responsible for his disappearance and attempted murder. He is partially distracted from his quest when one of them is murdered at a drunken party the night of his return and he falls under suspicion. He must then solve the murder, and the mystery of his lost years, while attempting to reconcile with his wife.

While Brackett was best known as a science fiction writer, she tackled many genres, in addition to working on the screenplays for The Big Sleep (1945) and The Long Goodbye (1973). She knew how to construct a grimy Raymond Chandler-style world.

Though filled with familiar shady characters and steamy Southern California settings, Brackett creates an original story. For every twist you anticipate, there's another one that comes as a surprise. The briskly-told tale is made all the more entertaining by the way Brackett has perfectly wed Sanders' screen persona with Vickers'. Just as with Crime on My Hands, you can almost hear his voice.

Both books are highly recommended for fans of George Sanders and vintage detective fiction.

Many thanks to Dean Street Press for providing copies of the books for review.

Apr 22, 2015

On DVD: A Remarkable Cast of Children In Our Mother's House

Though he is featured prominently in much of the advertising for Our Mother's House, Dirk Bogarde doesn't appear in the film until the half point. Up to then, it is the domain of a remarkable cast of seven children who play siblings coping with the sudden death of their sickly mother. Now this unusual, original film can be enjoyed in a new release from Warner Archive.

There is only a glimpse of the life the children lived alone with their mother offered in the opening scenes. Oldest sister Elsa (Margaret Laclere) returns to the house with groceries, and while there is also a maid, it is clear that she calls the shots where her parent is concerned. She has clearly set up a rhythm as caretaker and capable head of the house.

When the children's mother dies in a quiet gasp of breath, they grieve, but are so accustomed to taking care of the household that they carry on. They fire the housekeeper and claim mama has gone to sea on doctor's orders. They bury her body in the garden, and set up a shrine in the gardening shed where they commune with her spirit, carrying on the religious fanaticism she has instilled in them.

The children keep on for months, undisturbed and even managing to cash their mother's annuity checks. They struggle when the youngest sister Gerty (Phoebe Nicholls) becomes ill, but manage without a doctor. Then young, stuttering Jiminee (Mark Lester, Oliver! (1968)) brings home a school friend who wants to live with them, arousing the suspicion of the school teacher.

They are saved in the nick of time by the arrival of Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde), their supposed father. Summoned by older brother Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) during Gerty's illness, he appears at first to be their benefactor. He takes them on outings, and plays with them. In one quietly disturbing moment, he seems sexually fascinated by the pre-pubescent Diana (Pamela Franklin, The Innocents (1961)), though he declines to act on his interest. Like in that moment, the fun is overshadowed by a sense of dread, that he is too good to be true.

It turns out that he is. Charlie spends the money left to the children by their mother. He buys a car, throws parties, and brings home woman after woman. When he starts the process of selling the house, the children protest, and the full extent of his ugliness is made clear. It is also obvious that he has underestimated the will of the children to keep what is rightfully theirs.

The most astonishing thing about Our Mother's House is the cast of children. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert compared their sensitive, uncanny work to that of Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay (1959) and the cast of Lord of the Flies (1963). As in those films, director Jack Clayton captures a naturalness in his young performers that seems to be coupled with real craft. There's nothing precocious or forced about them; it's fine ensemble work by any standard, made all the more fascinating because of the age of the actors.

For the first half of the film, the siblings adjust to life on their own, quietly grieving and attending to the important details upon which their survival hinges. Their personalities emerge: the sweet and sensitive Gerty, the well-meaning Jiminee, who often lacks good sense, high-strung Diana and quietly nervous Hubert. They are cared for by Elsa, who has taken on the mother role ever since her own mother became ill.

The kids have their own society, where work, play and spirituality all have their place. It seems they could go on this way until adulthood if they were only left to live as they please. There are moments though, where you are reminded of their youth, and that they need guidance. In punishing Gerty for accepting a motorbike ride from a stranger, the children seem to be enforcing rules and religious beliefs in which they have received instruction, but do not yet fully understand. Clayton subtly pushes forward reminders of their youth, from a shot beneath the kitchen table of their dangling legs, to a close-up on a hand still pudgy with baby fat.

When Charlie shows up, it feels like an intrusion. While he secures the status quo for the immediate future, he upsets the balance the children have so carefully achieved. Though he has an adult understanding of the world, his behavior is more childish than that of his claimed offspring.

It's an unusual story, told with evenhanded melancholy, occasional playfulness and a great deal of tension. At moments, it seems like a horror film, but the young cast always gives the proceedings a feeling of poignancy that overwhelms any genre leanings.

Much as he did for Contempt (1963), Georges Delerue lends the film a bittersweet lushness with his mysteriously beautiful score.

Perhaps this deeply satisfying film will achieve the classic status it deserves now that it is available to a wider audience.

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.

Apr 19, 2015

Screenshot of the Week: Anita Ekberg in Boccaccio '70

Anita Ekberg plays around in Boccaccio '70 (1962).

Quote of the Week: Katharine Hepburn on Spencer Tracy

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Spencer had eyes like an old wild animal....He had a soul that had no release; you were not looking into an empty room. He found acting easy and life difficult.

-Katharine Hepburn, about Spencer Tracy

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Apr 16, 2015

TCM Classic Film Festival: Day Four and Farewell

I couldn't think of a better way to start day four of TCMFF than with the rousing opening number of Calamity Jane (1953). Doris Day standing on top of a speeding stagecoach singing at the top of her lungs was quite the eye-opener. Though I knew it was ridiculous, there was a part of me that hoped right up until the screening began that Day would make a surprise appearance. I don't think there's any way TCM would handle such a sought after, high profile guest in that way, but I can dream.

My original plan had been to see Psycho (1960) next, but that seemed too jarring a change in mood. I decided to go with the TBA screening of Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (1949), figuring that if it was so popular the first time, it had to be worth seeing. 

The always nattily dressed Noir czar Eddie Mueller introduced the screening. Though I was a bit disappointed that Norman Lloyd would not be there to chat after the screening as with the first showing, Mueller provided interesting background on the film. 

He said that it was made on a low budget, partly so the expensive sets from Joan of Arc could be used again. This tidbit helped me to appreciate the artistry of the film, because while you can see how the filmmakers cut corners, the production never feels cheap.

Set during the French Revolution, Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart and Arlene Dahl star as the most Hollywood French people you'll ever meet. I didn't know that any of them were in the film, nor Beulah Bondi or Charles McGraw. I felt a little jolt of excitement with each new revelation in the credits. 

When I realized Anthony Mann was the director and John Alton cinematographer, I cheered! I also quickly understood why this was considered a noir film, as this pair knows a thing or two about shadowy doom. 

I loved going into this movie knowing nothing and appreciating every surprise it held for me. The lower budget actually helped the film, because Mann would just shoot a little tighter, Alton would set the lights a little lower and the shadows longer, and between the two of them, they created a marvelous sense of dread.

While it seems to be only available in rather ragged prints, I highly recommend searching this one out.

While The Philadelphia Story (1940) has never been a particular favorite of mine, I've always found it to be aglow with the kind of magic that first drew me to classic films. The story doesn't appeal to me, but the cast is amazing: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Virginia Weidler, Roland Young and Ruth Hussey among them. It's not so shabby that George Cukor was at the helm as director as well. 

This is a film so vibrant with its "classicness" that I'd watch it just to get my fix, especially as a teenage film fan. Apparently, that's what actress Madeline Stowe did when she was young too, so in my mind she was the perfect choice to introduce the film with Illeana Douglas. She was so clearly a classic film nerd, and so knowledgeable too, that I really hope TCM will work more with her in the future. (more about her intro. here.) 

As I expected, I enjoyed the film more with an audience, but at the same time, I was starting to wonder how I was going to make it through another film. 

As soon as the film ended, it was back in line again for Marriage, Italian Style (1964) with an introduction by Sophia Loren. I had been anticipating this moment the entire festival. 

It was a wonderful experience walking by the already lengthy line queued up for the Chinese Theater. So many friends, old and new, waited to be a part of this marvelous moment too. As we took our spot at the end, many more passed by. It began to hit me that the end was near and I would soon be communicating with these people solely online again.

But what a great finale it was! Ben Mankiewicz began the event by reading a message from Robert Osborne, in which he praised the festival staff and said that he was on the mend. That was enormously comforting to hear.

Then Sophia Loren was announced, and just seeing her stride across the theater to her chair was a thrill. It was no mystery to anyone in the room why this woman was one of the biggest stars in the world. Mankiewicz was clearly in awe, as were we all.

Simply hearing Loren talk in that purring, Italian-accented voice was marvelous. She was funny, interesting, kind and quite glamorous in her white pant suit. It was a wonderful way to end the festival (more about her interview here.)

Though I tend to love movies that pair Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, this one was not one of my favorites. It was beautifully filmed and acted, but the story depressed me. Loren suffers so much as the longtime-mistress of a caddish bakery owner. I couldn't stand to see her that way after such a happy appearance from her in person! I will probably need to revisit this film another time.

Just like that, it was time for the Closing Night Party at Club TCM. As I walked with my friends down crowded Hollywood Boulevard, I savored the moment. I was tired, hungry, and glad I didn't have another film to see that day, but also a bit emotional.

It was great fun to see everyone gathered in Club TCM. I said goodbye to friends and was delighted to meet many more film fans, even during the last few hours of the festival. 

I enjoyed a glass of Bogart gin courtesy of TCM, but realized that that single drink was making me tipsy because I'd mostly subsisted on a large bag of popcorn that day. Good thing my hotel was only a block away.

When the lights went up in Club TCM, a gentle reminder the party was over, I was reluctant to go. Every hug goodbye included a promise to return the next year. With TCMFF 2015 barely in our rearview, we were already planning for 2016.

Apr 15, 2015

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015: Day Three

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Saturday was one of the most purely enjoyable days of the festival. All I did was watch movies and I think the simplicity of it all appealed to me. My energy started to flag a little, partly because I hadn't had a sit down meal for too long, and because I attempted another midnight movie, but I was still having a blast.

The first film of the day was Colleen Moore's last silent film, Why Be Good? (1929). Long thought to be lost, it was finally found and restored, and in 2014 Warner Archive released it on MOD disc (my review here). I found it to be the quintessential flapper film, with lots of fun parties and frocks, the frivolity leavened by a still relevant discussion of the double standards women, especially young women, face in romance.

I was curious to see how an audience would react to the film, and thrilled that a huge group of bloggers and #TCMParty regulars showed up for the screening. These photos really give you an idea of the camaraderie that develops between attendees of TCMFF (both photos courtesy of Laura. That's Karen and Kristina in the front, Lara, Angela and Jessica in the back):

And it isn't all about people who write blogs either. While I naturally gravitate towards people who write about the movies, I also enjoyed the company of many people who were there simply to check out the films.

I found watching Why Be Good? to be especially enjoyable with a audience. It's got a very crowd friendly mix of comedy, lively flirtations, glamour and wit. I hope that more Colleen Moore films will become available in the future, because she is an appealing actress: a mix of girl-next-door friendly and movie star charismatic.

Christine Ebersole

After the film, I got right back in line again for 42nd Street (1933) in the same theater. Broadway star Christine Ebersole helped with the introduction, and while she didn't seem to know much about the movie, she had plenty to say about the actual 42nd Street. While I enjoyed the slightly tart and very amusing Ebersole, I was disappointed that the intro. didn't include more tidbits about the film.

I would have gone to see a Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical on the big screen whatever the condition of the print, but it was especially exciting to see it in a new restoration. This version of the film will be used for the upcoming Warner Archive Blu-ray release. I sat very close to the screen for this one, ready to soak up every gorgeous detail.

Though I've seen 42nd Street more times than I can count, I still laughed at all the jokes, and every number thrilled me. Something about that movie is eternally fresh and alive to me.

With only a bag full of snacks to sustain me, I got right back into line again to see Air Mail (1932), an early John Ford drama. Leonard Maltin introduced the film, and he warned us that we weren't about to view a classic. Nevertheless, he said that it was an enjoyable watch. With that framework, it was easier for me to enjoy the drama on its own terms.

It's the story of the pilots on an air mail outpost. In a rare hero role, Ralph Bellamy is sympathetic, but has a slightly stern effect. I could see why he never made it as a leading man. When he softens, he's more likable, but that wasn't the proper persona for a dramatic lead.

Pat O'Brien steals the film in a flashy part as a skilled, daring, but irresponsible pilot who has an affair with a pilot's wife and angers the rest of the men with his reckless flying. It was amusing to see him playing a cad. A shame he didn't do that more often.

Also in the cast: Gloria Stuart in a slight, sweet performance and the always intriguing Leslie Fention in a small role.

It was an entertaining film,with some great stunt flying. As one of the few new-to-me picks at the festival, I was happy I took a chance on it.

Though I probably should have taken the time to sit down for a decent meal, I wanted to make sure to get in line early to see Shirley MacLaine before The Apartment (1960). If I'd only known those two hot dogs and BBQ chips were going to end up being my dinner, I might have gone for something better. 

I've written a bit about Maltin's conversation with Maclaine here. It was definitely one of the highlights of the festival, mostly because the actress doesn't hold back. She freely gives her opinion on everything, so you know who she didn't like and that gangsters were teaching her to cheat at cards. The woman has led a colorful life and she is unapologetic about the unconventional nature of it all.

While I enjoyed the film, I had my usual problem of losing patience with it. There are memorable moments scattered throughout and everything, from the performances and script to the music and cinematography are top notch. Still, it always starts to drive me crazy around the mid point, I think because so many of the characters are just horrid people!

I'd originally planned to check out The French Connection (1970) next. I've always wanted to see that movie on the big screen, but I couldn't resist the novelty of the Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Projector Show. This program of one hundred year and older films, presented with a hand-cranked projector as they were upon original release, was unlike anything I'd ever seen.

Before the film, a tiny hand-cranked Edison phonograph played music via wax cylinders. It fascinated me that no electricity was used to operate it, though a microphone was needed to make the sound sufficient to fill the theater:

It took some time to start the program, as the projector was being set up and calibrated for only one show. It was amazing to be able to see this gorgeous apparatus up close:

Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the program, which included an introduction to each film. He gave a short history of how projectors like the 1909 Model 6 camegraph motion picture machine to be used that night were used in the early days of cinema. He explained that projectionist Joe Rinaudo would be steadily cranking the handle of the projector at the same rate of speed as the camera operators who filmed the movies.

The program included some of the most famous early films, including A Trip to the Moon (1902), A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Great Train Robbery (1903) and one of my favorite silent shorts, Lois Webers' aptly-named Suspense (1913). 

There was something very reassuring about seeing the projectionist's arm moving in the shadows next to the screen. It was an unusually intimate way to see movies.

The whole thing felt like a special presentation at a museum, rather than a typical screening. It was an eye-opening experience, because it made me think about how much the way we see films has changed and what kind of an effect that has on viewer perspective.

I dashed out after the last film on the program to get in line for the next film, and missed a surprise entry, a hand-colored serpentine dance from over one-hundred years ago. I hear it was gorgeous. Next year I am definitely going to make a point of enjoying the film I'm watching to the end, instead of fretting about getting into the next line.

By then I was ready to collapse, but I couldn't bear to miss the rare opportunity to see Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). I knew I would probably fall asleep, but I was determined to see what I could of Tom Schiller's underseen nostalgic film, which hadn't even been broadcast on television until TCM aired it earlier this year.

I happened to miss that TCM showing, and when I finally settled down to watch it on Watch TCM, the last day it was available, I fell asleep because I'd had an unusually busy day. 

The film's star Zach Galligan introduced the film, and he shared lots of entertaining stories about his early career, in addition to a good back history of the film. He was auditioning for Risky Business at the same time as Nothing Lasts Forever, and he thought that Tom Cruise's breakout hit was sure to be a flop.

There are many reasons that the film Galligan decided he wanted became the one to fade away. It was completed when there were several new executives at MGM who didn't understand how to market the film and didn't want to figure it out. There were also rights issues with some of the stock footage used. The final death knell was a failed screening in Seattle (which surprised me, I thought we were a pretty progressive film town by then).

Then Galligan announced that Tom Schiller was in the audience. The surprise appearance delighted the crowd. Though the director was shy and seemed quite happy for his lead actor to handle the introduction, he also looked pleased that his work was being recognized. I talk more about their appearance in my stars post.

The movie was perfect for the midnight slot: quirky, mysterious, funny and deeply cynical about the 1940s-style, but also strangely futuristic society it depicted. 

I have to admit I never fully understood what was going on. I was running on fumes by then, and falling in and out of sleep for most of the film. But I was alert enough to enjoy the movie's unique beauty. I liked the way it moved between color and black and white, creating the dramatically opposing worlds of Earth and the planet our hero travels to by bus. 

It also gave actors like Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Imogene Coca, the astonishly-named Apollonia van Ravenstein and others the opportunity to play out their own personas while also embodying these unusual characters.

Apparently TCM will be showing the film again in May, so I'll be sure to watch it when I've had some decent sleep. From what I did see, it's a treasure.

I don't remember how I got back to the hotel. I was a zombie, but so ready for day four!

Apr 14, 2015

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015: Day Two

I  went light on the movies the second day of TCMFF. Only at a film festival can you say that seeing four flicks in a day is a "light" viewing schedule.

After the Christopher Plummer hand/foot print ceremony (which I wrote about here), I had planned to see The Proud Rebel (1958) with Alan Ladd and Olivia deHavilland. I was suddenly very hungry and tired though, and decided to have some lunch and take a quick break at the hotel instead. It's so hard to slow down once you get rolling at TCMFF, but you really have to take the occasional break.

Jeanine Basinger. Can you believe this woman is 80?

Since I'd never attended a Club TCM event, I thought I'd check out Jeanine Basinger's Films & Facts: Whose Responsibility? after my break. In retrospect, I can't believe I didn't plan to all along, because I adore Basinger. 

My first year at the festival, I was warned that I'd be depressed when I first got home, so I figured I should have something movie-related to look forward to upon my return. Basinger's free online course about marriage in the movies, in support of her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, and hosted by Wesleyan University seemed like a perfect idea. Though I barely had time to complete the course, it was immensely enjoyable, both because of the content and how soothing it was to watch Basinger's video lectures. There's something about her voice that always relaxes me.

Anyway, I was reminded of how amazing that experience was when Basinger came out on the stage. The woman just has a presence. You don't think academia when you see her. She's brilliant, but also relaxed and down-to-earth.

I loved Basinger's talk about truth and "truth" in the movies. She talked about the different ways history is approached in film, and how the importance of the truth depends upon several factors, including genre, the nature of the subject matter and the methods of the filmmaker. She said that on film, "history is a partly a matter of opinion." and by that she added, she meant interpretation. 

For example, the version of Madame Curie's life starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon is highly romanticized, but not completely false. Basinger said that what is being sold affects how facts are important, and in that case, the audience expected a love story as much as a biopic.

It was wonderful to hear the thoughts of one of my heroines and I am definitely planning to attend more Club TCM events at future festivals.

After the presentation, I stepped out to the lobby to check out Ann-Margret's interview with Ben Mankiewicz. It was too noisy for me to hear a lot of what they said, but I was mostly just trying to get a glimpse of her. I can't believe she's in her seventies. She's as gorgeous as ever!

Then I hustled down Hollywood Boulevard to get in line at The Egyptian Theater for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), my first movie of the day. It was a hot day, and I really appreciated that TCM staff were handing out cold bottles of water. 

Once I got inside, I connected with Angela of Hollywood Revue. Since we were in the dark for the next couple of hours, we didn't realize that we were wearing the same dress in different colors:

Great taste is contagious no?

Back to the theater. Ben Mankiewicz' interview with Ann-Margret was as much fun as I expected. The actress talked about her daredevil ways in the most demure, hushed voice. It was almost hard to believe that she was the same woman who had such a passion for speed--including a 2am motorcycle drive at 120 mph down Mulholland Drive--that she was actually forbidden by her studio to ride her bike. Costar Steve McQueen encouraged her to ignore that order, as he did. I wrote more about the interview in my Stars post.

I don't remember being impressed by The Cincinnati Kid the first time I saw it, and did find I lost my focus a bit during the long gambling scenes, but for the most part this is a really interesting film. Just the juxtaposition of different generations of actors fascinated me. There's Tuesday Weld, Steve McQueen and Ann-Margret representing one generation and Joan Blondell and Edward G. Robinson another. I guess Karl Malden falls somewhere in between. 

What I liked about this set-up was how well the younger and older generations complemented each other. Watching Steve McQueen stare down Edward G. Robinson across the gambling table, I thought how remarkable it was to see this young actor holding his own with one of the greatest screen stars. And Robinson isn't diminished a bit, he is as nuanced and emotionally raw as ever.

Of course, Blondell steals the film. It doesn't matter that her role was small. She steals everything. It's just the way it is.

After the movie, it was great fun have a snack and spend some time in the Egyptian forecourt with blogging and Twitter friends:

Photo credit Aurora
We were all in line to see one of the most eagerly anticipated screenings of the festival, Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) with a new score by silent film music maestro Carl Davis.

Leonard Maltin introduced the screening. I always enjoy his introductions, because he is a great storyteller and has often had in person interactions with the stars he talks about. He shared his memory of tracking down Keaton at a New York film shoot as a teenager. While their conversation was awkward, the actor was kind and even helped him to identify the film in a Keaton still the young Maltin brought with him. 

Steamboat Bill Jr. is low on my list of Keaton favorites; I've tended to appreciate the amazing stunts in the final part of the film more than the movie as a whole. It was a much more satisfying experience with an audience, as I picked up on gags I hadn't noticed before. 

The score was great, and played beautifully by an enormous ensemble. My only complaint was that the guitar used for one short scene had a hokey 60s-sitcom sound that seemed out of place for the time period. But overall I was impressed yet again by the genius of Carl Davis.

Then I ran down Hollywood Boulvard to see George Lazenby before On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). I was certain the screening would fill up and I wouldn't get in, but as it turned out, there were plenty of seats by the time I got there. And thank heaven I did get in, because watching Ben Mankiewicz interview the Devil-may-care Lazenby was one of the best experiences of the festival. (I posted about their chat here.)

The film itself was as entertaining as ever. It's been my favorite Bond since I first saw it, mostly because I love Diana Rigg, but it's also much better made than the other entries in the series. For once, Bond is portrayed as a human and his romantic interest has a personality beyond being his sex toy. It's also a great action flick, beautifully filmed and with Telly Savalas as an unforgettable villain. 

It was a thrill to see Savalas' lair on the big screen, because I'd actually been there! The Swiss location is now a tourist attraction, made somewhat less sexy by the fact that they now serve lasagna to tourists in a restaurant on the top floor. Now that I think about it, that adventure is worthy of its own post.

I don't know why I thought I had to do this, but I rushed out of Her Majesty's Secret Service mid-car chase to get in line for the midnight movie Boom! (1968). Even though I got into everything that I wanted to last year, for some odd reason I was anxious about getting into several films this year. 

The anxiety was unwarranted too. 

Especially for a midnight movie. Most people aren't crazy enough to stay up that late. I've always been that crazy though. The fact that I was especially eager to see this film because John Waters loves it only proves that.

Boom! is a gorgeous mess. Based on the unsuccessful Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, it stars Elizabeth Taylor in a role meant for an old woman and Richard Burton in a part written for a young man. That alone sets everything off the rails. The fact that the stars also seem to be drunk and probably not heeding any directorial advice just adds to the insanity.

Taylor is a wealthy, ailing widow who is suffering through her last days in a gorgeous, isolated Mediterranean villa overlooking the sea. She receives an unwelcome visit from poet Burton, who is notorious for visiting wealthy ladies before their deaths and making off with their jewels. As annoyed as she is, the acidic widow is attracted to the trespasser and hopes to make him her last lover.

I didn't take much note of the plot though. I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, and Taylor throwing medical equipment and trays full of food, Noël Coward howling like a wolf and the way our heroine could turn the film's soundtrack on and off at will. 

It's a spectacle, beautiful, campy, full of long speeches that will try the eyelids of any Midnight movie attendee. 

While I'll admit that it doesn't work on a conventional level, there is some poignancy to Taylor's performance. The actress must have sensed the familiarity of this woman suffering from illness, the survivor of multiple marriages, pampered, spoiled and yet strangely restricted. Every time she threw a tray or made a fit, I thought of the shy MGM child star, being lauded, but also leading a stressful studio life from a young age. I was happy to see her cut loose.

It was a strange experience, and I ended up buying the film when I got home to be sure of what I had seen. While it is sort of an endurance test, I enjoyed it. Boom! was a highlight of the festival for me, if anything because it is that rare cinematic treasure that somehow works despite its many failings.

Apr 13, 2015

Book Review: Audrey and Bill

When I saw that a book had been written about the affair between Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, I wondered if there was enough to say about their brief romance to fill a book. It turns out, it doesn't even fill half a book, but this dual biography, while not essential, is an entertaining read.

Audrey and Bill canoodle in Sabrina (1954)
Audrey Hepburn and William Holden were both beautiful, insecure and blessed with natural talents that they developed into real acting chops. It's no surprise that these tender-hearted stars were so enchanted by each other. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that Holden possessed a streak of self-destruction, while Hepburn was already so damaged by the starvation she experienced during World War II that she spent the rest of her life trying to heal.

The pair met on the set of Sabrina (1954), which was directed by Billy Wilder and co-starred Humphrey Bogart. Hepburn was fresh off her Oscar-winning breakthrough in Roman Holiday (1953). Holden was much more seasoned as an actor. He'd had several successes, including the also Wilder-directed Sunset Blvd. (1950), and still had some of his best roles ahead of him. Audrey had just broken off her engagement with a British millionaire. Bill was married with children.

Image Source
Audrey and Bill documents the instant attraction between the two actors and how their affair played out. The Sabrina shoot was notoriously difficult, with a very grumpy Bogart clashing with his costars and director. Holden comforted the sensitive Hepburn and things became electric between them quickly.

The Hepburn/Holden romance would likely have led to marriage, but Bill's inability to have children was reportedly too much for Audrey to bear, as she wanted a family of her own more than anything. They eventually parted, though Holden was still clearly pining for Hepburn when they co-starred again in Paris When it Sizzles (1964), ten years after Sabrina. The pair did not see much of each other after making the film, so the final half of the book falls into a dual biography of the pair, comparing their lives and loves.

Audrey and Bill goes down with a slurp, its action whipping by quickly and smoothly. While a lot of the stories and rumors here are familiar, they are endlessly entertaining and make for an addictive read.

I was disturbed by the lack of notes to directly support the claims made in book, especially when it came to the numerous quotes made by associates of Epstein. It is perhaps best taken as the memories of a well-connected man, amusingly told in the back booth of a dimly-lit restaurant. It's probably not all true, maybe mostly true, but it's definitely good storytelling.

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The one thing I couldn't take was when Epstein got too creative, like when he writes dialogue for a private conversation between Holden and Wilder, or makes assumptions about what Holden's wife Ardis thought about his latest affair. I found these things to be distractions and not necessary to enhance an already fascinating story.

Overall, I relished reading about Audrey and Bill together. I know that their best times were private, and quite happy that those memories will stay that way, but I loved getting a glimpse of the connection they made. It's wonderful to imagine the story behind the photos of the pair in the book. They are clearly images of people who have forgotten film stardom, and all the worries and details of their lives, because they are lost in their own world together.

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