Aug 26, 2015

On DVD: Three Talkies Starring John Gilbert

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The legend that silent film star John Gilbert's voice did not record well on film is one of the most notorious in Hollywood history. It has always overshadowed what was in fact an admirable career in both silents and talkies.

However, in the decades since his decline, the Gilbert's reputation has improved. Audiences have been able to hear for themselves how well he actually adjusted to the talkies, in the few of his sound movies, like Queen Christina (1933) and Downstairs (1932), that have been available. Warner Archive's recent release of four of the actor's early sound films further punctures the myth of his inadequate voice.

I watched three movies in the set: Redemption (1930), Gentleman’s Fate (1931) and The Phantom of Paris (1931) (the fourth is the action adventure flick Way for a Sailor (1930), which costars Wallace Beery), and found all of them enjoyable in different ways. While the actor, and even the movies themselves were occasionally hampered by old silent film conventions that didn't translate to sound, Gilbert is often very good and always worth watching.

Redemption (1930) is the earliest film of the batch and actually the first sound film Gilbert made, though it was released after the notorious His Glorious Night (1929) which was famously lampooned in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

It is the story of troubled young man who steals his best friend's fiancée (Conrad Nagle and Eleanor Boardman respectively) and then abandons her for a gypsy woman (Renee Adoree). At a little over an hour, the story moves speedily through the years, taking its hero from marriage to fatherhood within minutes. As with many early talkies, it still feels a lot like a silent, with its liberal use of intertitles and a uniformly melodramatic acting style employed by the cast.

Based on the Leo Tolstoy play The Living Corpse, there is much here for the cynical modern viewer to mock, but seen through the right lens it is an engaging film and Gilbert is a strong presence.
It is a bit silly the way the actor grandly proclaims "woulda woulda" to his baby son, and how every character seems eternally overcome by emotion. The actors proclaim as much as they discuss. This is a world where ordinary people call a man a "charming good-natured fellow, as irresponsible as the wind."

Taken on its own terms though, Redemption is a consistently entertaining film. Gilbert is unashamedly romantic, and while the script can be ridiculous, sometimes seeming more appropriate for title cards, it's also a lot of fun because it plunges the viewer into complete escapism. The film doesn't attempt to be realistic, abandoning itself to magnificent, melodramatic hand wringing.

Made only a year later, Gentleman's Fate and The Phantom of Paris both seem much more modern than Gilbert's sound debut. The performances are sharper and grittier, and the screenwriting more suited to speech than in his first talkie.

In Gentleman's Fate, Gilbert is a wealthy New Yorker who learns that while he always thought himself an orphan, he has a family alive and living in New Jersey. He is shocked to find he is named Giacomo rather than Jack and is the son of a mobster, dying of a gunshot wound, who has summoned him to his bedside.

Rather than being repelled by the darkness of the family business, Giacomo finds he has a knack for thug life. When his involvement in a stolen necklace scandal makes his fiancée call off their wedding, he doesn't leave his kin to try to win her back, as much as he still wants her. Instead, he makes do with a mob moll, played with touching vulnerability by Anita Page.

While he doesn't have the edge of actors like James Cagney, Edward Robinson and George Raft who were crafting the crime flick genre, Gilbert is a compelling hood, maintaining his elegance while accepting the coarser elements of his new environs.

In a supporting role as a wiseacre receptionist, Marie Prevost gets the best lines, and she snaps into them with glee. She shows up the rest of the cast, demonstrating greatness among a cast, and in a flick that has settled for being good. From the way she boldly rubs the collar of a socialite's fur coat while she is still wearing it to her take on a handful of saucy lines, she lends lively energy and pre-code frankness to her scenes.

Gentleman's Fate plays with a lot of what would eventually be familiar conventions of crime and film noir flicks, from its fatalistic plot twists to the hardboiled lingo. It's almost impossible to watch without picking out elements that could have inspired later films.

Gilbert's performance as escape artist Cheri-Bibi in The Phantom of Paris is perhaps his most polished of the three. He is romantic, charming and manages his lines with light sophistication. Were the actor to continue on in movies, this is likely the kind of romantic, dashing role in which he would have found the most success.

The film moves briskly through a busy plot, crisply advancing its characters through situations rather than getting to know them, but this works in Gilbert's favor. While he is brilliant in lighter moments and seems at ease and more sure of the distinctions between sound and silent acting, the actor is less subtle in dramatic scenes. Under the cover of constant action, he continues to hone his sound technique.


As a group, these are fascinating films, and solid early talkies in addition to being yet more evidence that Gilbert could hold his own with a microphone. The actor's voice was fine, if not quite a match for his heart throb silent image.

Though Gilbert had a soulful, charismatic presence in his talkies, he didn't have the edge of the new stars. His romantic, sensitive persona was perhaps best suited to the silent age. The actor may spoken well on film, but he wasn't as brittle or witty with a line as William Powell and he didn't have the bold appeal of Clark Gable. Being a movie star in the thirties took more than being able to face down a microphone, the change wasn't just technical, it was cultural.

Still, Gilbert was a unique presence in early sound films and he would likely have matured into an interesting, offbeat performer had his luck been different.

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

Aug 20, 2015

Theatrical Review: Brando Speaks for Himself in Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

Ever since I saw Marlon Brando as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show, I've thought that here was a man who should be running his own show whenever possible. He strode onto the stage in a denim jacket and neckerchief, looking like the cat who ate the canary, ready to make another meal of Cavett. His host tried his best to steer him towards chatter about his Hollywood career, but Brando was determined to use his appearance as a platform for his activism.

The crowd was attentive, though undoubtedly a bit impatient, but every once in a while he'd flash a disarming grin at Cavett, and you could practically feel everyone in the room swoon. You couldn't get that effect if he had been a dutiful guest. Brando is at his best when he is free to express himself, and that is exactly why Listen to Me Marlon is such a moving film.

The documentary, directed by British filmmaker Stevan Riley, makes public for the first time clips from the hundreds of hours of private recordings Brando made of himself over the course of his life. This massive cache of tapes includes the actor's musings about life and his craft, answering machine tapes and his homemade self hypnosis tapes in which he begs himself to take it easy on the desserts he adores.

Riley juxtaposes these audio files with archival footage, clips from the actor's films, family home movies and news footage. It has the effect of a liquid collage, smoothly winding through the defining moments of the actor's life. 

It's a quiet film, with a melancholy, bittersweet tone, most likely due to the reflective tone of Brando's musings. While the actor is seen at many different ages, it has the overall feel of an old man looking back, remembering and wondering where he went wrong.

Brando speaks a lot about his craft, how he learned about people by observing them on the street and how much his acting teacher Stella Adler encouraged him when he had little faith in himself. While he worked diligently to hone his talent, it is clear that he was born with the sensitivity crucial to performing the way he did. He often seems high on the details of life, like the rhythmic sound of a train clattering on the tracks or the way leaves on a tree look in the sunlight.

He talks about his parents, both alcoholics. His mother was poetic and inspired in him a sense of the absurd, while his father was abusive, always getting in bar fights, unhappy with the state of his life. It is easy to see how characteristics of both bled into his craft.

The actor seems to have been destined for a dramatic life, though he often gives the impression in his recordings that he craves peace and beauty above all else. Hollywood was not a lifestyle for him. While he enjoyed acting, there was a point where he only made films to earn the money he needed to escape from the chaos of life.

While Brando's films are given ample attention, there's also plenty of footage devoted to the life he built outside of the industry, from the way he fell in love with the open-hearted Tahitians while on location film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), to his courageous activism on behalf of American Indians and African Americans. At one point a reporter asks him about the latter, and if he fears he could die fighting for the cause. A slow grin creeps across his face before he answers with a simple "yes".

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of Brando's life was the difficulties that his children faced. His ex-wife arranged for his eldest son, Christian to be kidnapped while he was a teen. Years later, he was convicted of the murder of his half sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, who had been allegedly abusive to her. The scandal caused Brando's already emotionally fragile daughter to hang herself.

It is here that Riley is most skilled in his collage-making, demonstrating Brando's grief with clips of him speaking tearfully in court and to the press, and showing footage of his children in Tahiti, when they were young and uncorrupted by the outside world, something the actor insisted upon, though it meant he rarely saw them. The director creates an especially effective portrait of Cheyenne with just a few clips. You can sense her vibrance and vulnerability, and how much she was treasured by her father, despite his frequent absences from her life.

I was also struck by the astonishing influence Brando's films have had. While his professional achievements are well known, it was incredible to see them gathered together here. So many of his performances could have sustained his legend on their own: the award winners like On the Waterfront (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Godfather (1972), and the roles that inspired cultural change and debate, like The Wild One (1953), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). It isn't just that he was a great actor, he was also influential both in his style and in the material he chose.

In speaking for himself, Brando becomes more than an acting legend or the center of scandal. He is given the opportunity to share how it feels from the inside and uses all his powers of expression to help you understand. He always said that acting is "lying for a living," but it is really the communication of an essential truth that has made him a legend and object of enduring admiration.

Many thanks to SIFF for providing a screener of Listen to Me Marlon (2015). The film will open at SIFF Uptown Cinema on 8/21 and will be screening at select US theaters.

Aug 18, 2015

Book Review--The Making of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles's Last Movie

Orson Welles began filming The Other Side of the Wind in 1970. He died fifteen years later, the film incomplete. It was to be his masterpiece, as important to him as Citizen Kane (1941), if not more so. The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, reveals the whole fascinating, frustrating story of its production, up to the present day, where the effort to release Welles' final work continues.

Over the fifteen years of its production, Welles constantly sought funding, cast members died, marriages were destroyed and everyone involved did everything possible to complete the film. While money was always an issue, the biggest roadblock was its director, who could never commit to an end date, always striving to bring his work even closer to perfection.

The Press Scrambles to Cover Hannaford's Birthday Party in TOSOTW

The Other Side of the Wind was to be a satire of Hollywood in the 1970s, where young, bold filmmakers brushed away the last of the old studio system. It centers on the birthday, and last day, of 70-year-old director Jake Hannaford. Played by fellow legendary filmmaker John Huston, Welles always insisted that the role was not autobiographical, but there are parallels that must have been obvious to even the director himself. It co-starred Susan Strasberg as a Pauline Kael-like critic, Peter Bogdanovich as pretty much himself and the director's mistress and collaborator, the Croatian artist and actress Oja Kodar.

From the beginning, the film's production was intense. The crew would work sixteen hour days and six day weeks, all of them ready to drop from exhaustion but devoted to Welles. The director was demanding and often temperamental, on multiple occasions firing his entire crew, but they were all so eager to work with a genius that they'd simply give the director a few days to cool down and then return to work as if nothing had happened.

Strasberg and Bogdanovich in TOSOTW

Welles was completely devoted to his craft, typically spending the night typing new script pages and coming to the set in his robe. He drank can after can of Fanta, stuffed himself with rich food, and fortified his body with a table full of drugs that kept him alive as he struggled through each new breath. His passion for filmmaking was the thing that gave him life above all else.

The elements that made the process of making movies addictive for Welles astonished those who worked with him. Even the way that it was filmed would be unusual, as footage would come from thirty-five-, sixteen- and eight-millimeter cameras. He was endlessly inventive, playing with perspective to achieve remarkable results, and always with the most budget friendly effects he could manage.

Huston in TOSOTW

Welles was also a gifted film editor, working with tiny pieces of film to mold the precise effect he desired. He would use footage collected over years of filming, and sometimes the final product would be highly unusual. In a scene where Kodar changes clothes in a bathroom, it is edited to include footage of her acting in the same segment at age twenty-nine, thirty-two and thirty-three.

This movie without end became a familiar legend in the industry. When Strasberg told her agent she'd been asked to do a film with Orson Welles, he told her another client had done a project with the director years ago and had a great experience. The name of that film? The Other Side of the Wind.

Welles in the 70s

By the 1970s, the industry was eager to pay tribute to Welles: he was the third to be honored with a lifetime achievement award by AFI and the Academy of Arts and Sciences gave him an honorary Oscar. While Welles would use these honors to promote his work in progress, his admirers were not as eager to fund his projects.
There's plenty of attention given to the administrative aspects of the production, from the involvement of patient, but anxious Iranian investors, to the constant lack of a budget or financial documentation.

Welles needed a patron, but got businesspeople who wanted a good investment. He was an artist with no regard for time who struggled to finish his projects because he wanted to keep working to perfect them. While he was due that respect to a point, his refusal to ever finish the project was troublesome. He'd go to great lengths to avoid discussing an end date, hiding, refusing to sign contracts--and yet still asking for more cash and equipment.

Karp discusses Welles' better known collaborators, like his mistress of twenty years the Croatian actress and artist Oja Kodar and director Peter Bogdanovich and lesser known players, the most intriguing being the director and cinematographer Gary Graver, one of Welles' most devoted supporters throughout the process of making and funding the film, so much so that he destroyed his own life to work with him.

It can be painful to wade through all the details of the production of The Other Side of the Wind. The book often becomes tedious, but through no fault of Karp. It's a long, drawn out story and the only way to understand why the film has still not been released is to soak up every last frustrating detail.

Nevertheless, it is overall an entertaining read, full of interesting anecdotes and above all a great tribute to Welles as an artist. It also brings up the question of whether an artist can thrive, or even survive in a world that is increasingly focused on the pursuit of money. This is a world which Welles would never acknowledge. Were it not for that scramble for wealth, it is very likely the film would have been released by now.

For a quick glimpse of The Other Side of the Wind, take a look at this clip featuring Huston, Strasberg and Bogdanovich:

Aug 13, 2015

Summer Under the Stars--Ann-Margret: My Story

This post is my contribution to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by the brilliant Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film.

When announcements about special guests for TCM Classic Film Festival 2015 begin trickling out, one of the most squeal-worthy for me was that Ann-Margret would make be making an appearance. I adore her energetic, ever so slightly over-the-top persona, her phenomenal skill as a dancer and the way she evolved into an accomplished dramatic actress.

The actress was scheduled to interview with Ben Mankiewicz in both in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel and before a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965). I couldn't believe it!

Though I'd admired Ann-Margret for a long time, I realized that I knew very little about her life. In fact, the only thing I could think of was that she survived a massive fall during one of her live shows several years ago. I figured there had to be some more uplifting stories in her life than that one.

So I found a copy of her 1994 autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story, and dove in.

Whenever I read a memoir, especially a Hollywood memoir, I expect a fair amount of fiction. I always figure that the real appeal of these books is that the subjects reveal something of themselves by how they write about their lives. Something about the way Ann-Margret told her story made me believe her though. She came off as a reliable narrator: levelheaded, frank and self aware.

Though she's had plenty of troubles along the way, Ann-Margret has for the most part led a blessed life. She found success young, was able to grow in her career, and despite a few youthful missteps, she had the luck to find both people to love and to help her advance professionally.

Both of those things happened when she met the love of her life, actor Roger Smith, a man who would become so involved in the promotion of her career that he was often accused of being a controlling Svengali. It is this accusation that seems to have inspired Ann-Margret to write her memoirs. While she holds back nothing as a performer, she's always seemed modest about her private life, and it is a testament to her great love for Smith that she would share so much of herself to set the record straight.

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I was charmed to get a glimpse of the real Ann-Margret. She's not much like her sexy, hair tossing, hip twirling, screen and stage persona. That woman is a stage creation, a force of nature that sometimes even seems to surprise the actress herself.

In her much quieter personal life the actress is more reserved: intensely devoted to her parents, free of issues with drugs and alcohol and disciplined about her health and well-being. Were it not for her addiction to fast motorcycles and the colorful life she led, she might even come off as a bit dull.

Ann-Margret spent her toddler years in the tiny town of Valsjobyn, Sweden, a peaceful place where everyone knew and cared about each other. Her father was restless to get more out of life though, and the family moved to the infinitely more bustling Chicago when she was six.

The actress began performing at an early age, first in dance recitals for which her mother would make her elaborate costumes, and later as the lead in high school dramatics.

Entertaining came easily to the young performer. She was strongly affected by music. Whenever a catchy tune would begin to play, she couldn't resist the urge to move her body.

By college, Ann-Margret was working regularly with a successful nightclub act. When the strain of balancing performing and studies became too much, she chose show business.

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The young Ann-Margret was such a knock-out that even in a place like Hollywood she stood out right away. A friend took her to the set of The Misfits (1961) one afternoon, where she had the thrill of meeting Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Clark Gable, and from across the set Marilyn Monroe noticed her and commented on how attractive she was. Attaining success was going to be hard work, but all the doors were open for her.

George Burns gave the actress her start, casting her in his stage show. Next came the movies, where she had the awe-inspiring experience of starring opposite Bette Davis in her first film, Pocketful of Miracles (1961). The legend insisted that the young actress be shot to her best advantage in close-ups and gave her tips on screen acting.

From then on Ann-Margret was plunged into one project after another: State Fair (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), albums, stage shows. She was in demand, but cursed with undiscriminating management and in danger of overexposure. It wasn't until she aligned herself with producer Allan Carr and Roger Smith that her career found a steady path.

The actress shares stories of her private life sparingly, but the tidbits are interesting. Her memories of the remarkably close relationship she had with Elvis are especially touching. The two were similarly transformed by music and the rock star appreciated that he could trust his Viva Las Vegas (1964) co-star when so many others failed him.

There has been plenty of chaos in Ann-Margret's life, and while she claims that prefers to be taken care of, the performer proves that she is plenty tough when it is called for. Her jaw was wired shut after that infamous 22 foot fall from a platform constructed for a Lake Tahoe show in 1972, and yet she got herself into shape to perform again within weeks, because she wanted her ailing father to know she was okay. When Smith became afflicted by a mysterious illness that sapped him of energy, she overcame her fears of independence and took over the management of her career in addition to caring for her husband.

The actress has grown in her profession, proving herself in drama after enjoying huge success in musicals and comedies. With a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations under her belt, the industry has clearly recognized her achievements.

This was an addictive read. I almost literally carried the book around me until I'd finished it (didn't think it was wise to take it in the shower...). The actress shares a lot of detail while staying respectful to the people she has known, never oversharing. If you have any interest in Ann-Margret, I highly recommend it.

It probably goes without saying that I will be glued to TCM today. Hope to see you all tweeting at #TCMParty and #SUTS!

Take a look at my other posts featuring Ann-Margret:

TCM Prefunc: 10 Reasons I Dig Ann-Margret

I write about seeing Ann-Margret at TCMFF 2015 here and here.

My review of Once A Thief (1965), which stars Ann-Margret and Alain Delon

All  TCMFF images property of A Classic Movie Blog.

Aug 7, 2015

On DVD: Margaret O'Brien and Wallace Beery Team Up in Bad Bascomb (1946)

As outlaw Zed Bascomb, Wallace Beery is charmed by Mormon orphan Margaret O'Brien in Bad Bascomb (1946), an under seen western now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

While Bascomb is terrorizing the Rocky Mountain territories with his gang, federal agents are on the search for the crude criminal and his men. When the bandits come upon a friendly missionary, the man is killed by Zeb's sidekick Bart Yancey (J. Carrol Naish), and the manhunt is further intensified.

The gang is ambushed by well-prepared citizens when it attempts to loot its next town, forcing what remains of the group to split up and attempt escape. Zeb and Yancey hide with a caravan of Mormons on its way to Utah, a group which is mourning the loss of their missing brother, who happens to be the slain missionary.

As the pair is accepted by the group, and recruited to aid the unmarried women, Zeb meets orphan Emmy (O'Brien) and finds himself teamed with her sturdy grandmother Abbey (Marjorie Main). Though charmed by the forthright girl, when the bandit learns the wagon train is carrying a fortune in gold meant to be used for building a hospital, he and Yancey decide to steal the money.

Their plans change when Emmy becomes ill and Bascomb abandons Yancey to care for the girl. When Yancey makes an unsuccessful attempt to take the gold, Zeb shoots him as he escapes. His former alley calls upon neighboring Native Americans already angry about the intrusion on their land to attack the caravan in revenge. Suddenly heroic, Bascomb risks his life to save the Mormons.

By the time he appeared in Bascomb, Beery was nearing the end of a hugely successful career. He was one of few stars to successfully make the transition from silents to talkies, and had stayed fairly prolific. At this point he was in his sixties, and beginning to make fewer films a year due to his advancing age. Though only a few years away from his death of a heart attack in 1949, the actor holds his own in several action scenes, appearing to ably handle the demands of his role.

Though Beery was often among the top ten favorite stars during his career, onscreen he was always most popular as part of a team. He was at his best in comedies with the even more beloved Marie Dressler and in a pair of films with child star Jackie Cooper.

Here he finds his second best match with Marjorie Main, who bickers with the actor in her typically corny, but appealingly bracing way. Much like Cooper, O'Brien is a sturdy partner for Beery, complementing, rather than overpowering the actor with her charisma. The trio plays its familiar personas skillfully, fans will be entertained, and those who don't appreciate them are unlikely to be won over here.

It's a beautifully-filmed production, making the most of several Wyoming locations. While it can occasionally be goofy and sentimental, the magnificence of the movie's surroundings lend it a bit more substance. While it takes a mostly comic tone, the action scenes are intense and often brutal compared to the more gentle interactions between Beery and O'Brien.

Though the battle scenes are intricately filmed and thoroughly heart-pounding, they are clearly frightening and painful for many of the horses used by the actors. That and the portrayal of the Native Americans as bloodthirsty barbarians were of course familiar elements in films of the time, as hard as they may be for current audiences to accept. I did find it amusing that the tribal chief gave perfectly logical reasons for not wanting the white man on his land. This is definitely a story in which determining the hero depends upon your point of view.

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.

Aug 2, 2015

Quote of the Week: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

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She was a rogue wave, a loose electron, an arrow aimed straight for his ailing heart.

-Sophia Loren, about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

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