Aug 31, 2016

John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) on Blu-ray

I don't tend to gravitate towards westerns, but I'm always game for John Ford's take on the genre. In films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, he invests the grit and grime of the open country with a kind of poetry that gives the rough and tumble life of his characters great poignancy.

There needs to be a term for the particular spell that John Ford weaves as a director, something like the Lubitsch Touch, an appeal you can only partially describe, but essentially understand. He sets a particular tone in his films, and especially his westerns: an uncannily balanced mixture of light humor, feisty romance, gut-wrenching emotions and deathly serious tension. Even more astonishing is the way the director films this mash of moods with the grace of a man who is overwhelmed by the beauty he sees. On one hand, it's hard to believe this is the same guy who shared his sketches of penises with Maureen O'Hara; on the other it is perfectly plausible.

This Ford aura makes me question my own film preferences. He so clearly illuminates what makes the western loveable that he makes me want to dig deeper into the genre, and sometimes a viewing of one of his films does lead me to further exploration. Ford makes his landscapes breathe, so you feel the presence of the hills, the rumble of horses' hooves and the determination of his characters to conquer a wild territory. I felt this pull the most in his 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, but it is also strong in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Though years younger in reality (True Grit [1969] was two decades away), John Wayne is aged effectively to play a cavalry officer who is nearing retirement. He faces this life change reluctantly, uncertain of his future as the death of a family he still grieves leaves him adrift in the world. Though he seems weary in some respects, you get the impression he'd like to die in his boots.

Wayne throws himself into his last mission, forging forward with his men through the stunning Monument Valley, trying to negotiate with the Indians through a tribal elder instead of witnessing more bloodshed. He keeps himself busy with the personal aspects of outpost life as well, watching over his alcoholic first sergeant (played by the comfortingly reliable Victor McLaglen) and occasionally intervening in the rather uneven love triangle between the commanding officer's niece (Joanne Dru) and two soldiers (the hapless Harry Carey Jr. and the more viral John Agar).

These dramas and others, among a cast that also includes sturdy Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Mildred Natwick, are essentially approached with a sure pace and light spirit. When there is a moment of contrast: the tension of battle or the weary sadness of Wayne's grief, it is all the more heartbreaking because you know tragedy always lingers close by.

The look of the film is distinct enough to have its own powerful presence, with the bright, clear daytime shots of the valley and the softer, glowing orange and pink compositions of the quieter evening moments. Cinematographer Winton Hoch earned an Academy Award for his work, though he fought so frequently with Ford during filming that he was ready to quit. The beauty of his work is especially striking in this Blu-ray edition.

Special features on the disc include a trailer and a brief clip of John Ford's home movies around the time of the film's production in which he is traveling to scout for locations.

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

Aug 26, 2016

Book Review: Olivia de Havilland Adores Paris in Every Frenchman Has One

Every Frenchman Has One
Olivia de Havilland
Crown Archetype (2016 reissue)

What does every Frenchman have? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise for you. Suffice to say, it isn't as sexy as you might think.

In reading the recent reissue of Olivia de Havilland's 1961 memoir of adjusting to life in France, I didn't learn anything about the interior life of Academy Award-winning actress, but I enjoyed the light-hearted fun of this breezy read. It's a series of unconnected vignettes about her years in mid-century France, covering, among other things, her social life, learning the language, hairdressing and the less predictable topics of liver care and the bladder capacity of the French.

The chapters float by as if buoyed on a sea of froth. de Havilland captures the essence of her new culture with an eye for detail, but always with a humorous air. It is short, and clever. You could gobble up this book in one sitting if you got caught in its spell.

de Havilland moved to Paris, France in the 1950s for love. Freshly divorced at the Cannes Film Festival, she had met, and connected with journalist and Paris Match editor Pierre Galante there, and when the French government deemed she had remained unattached for a sufficient period, the pair married and took up residence with her three-year-old son from her previous marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich. This new union wouldn't last, but the pair would remain friends until Galante's death and de Havilland would make her permanent home in Paris.

The action takes place after de Havilland's Hollywood heyday and a few years before her entertaining late career trio of The Light in the Piazza (1962), Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). She doesn't speak much of her career, though there are a few mentions, including references to Not as a Stranger (1955) and The Proud Rebel (1958).

While she doesn't completely ignore her career, de Havilland's focus is on her life away from the camera. Her problems are definitely of the privileged white lady variety. She becomes faint when the painters mix up the color combo for the façade of her house, and she devotes much attention to the horrors of instructing French workers in the craft of making an American-style dishwashing station. You also hear of her humiliation in not knowing how to properly address the Comtesse de Paris and the headache-inducing problems of understanding fancy French dinner invitations.

It's an interesting peek into a world of wealth and prestige, in which an American movie star can be happily distraught by the cosmetic problems of life. Of course it is a fantasy, spotlighting the glitz while discarding the grime, but it is a most entertaining one.

Aug 24, 2016

On Blu-ray: Astaire and Charisse Bid Farewell to the Big Musical in Silk Stockings (1957)

It's 1957 and the era of big musicals is ending, but Silk Stockings doesn't feel like a dying gasp. It is a slick, colorful and expertly executed production. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it isn't likely to top the favorites list of many musical fans, but with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the leads, you can always expect to be impressed.

Based on the story of the 1939 comedy romance Ninotchka, which became famous as the production in which Garbo let out a highly uncharacteristic belly laugh, it stars Charisse as a serious-minded Russian envoy out to bring home a countryman and composer, Fred Astaire as an American musical producer who woos her and wants to hire that very composer and Janis Paige as a water-logged swimming film star looking to diversify her filmography. As one of a trio of Russian commissars who are seduced by Parisian life, Peter Lorre makes his musical debut and seems to have the time of his life doing so.

Director Rouben Mamoulian set the course for the modern film musical with innovative early sound efforts like Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932) and later made the charming Summer Holiday (1948) during the genre's colorful heyday. Stockings was his last completed film and evidence that if he'd been given the right materials and autonomy, he might have made a few more classics. As it is, this was not a bad way to go.

While the scenes between numbers can be trying (they all could have been half as long and gotten the point across), the dances are deservedly classic, polished, energetic and the perfect showcase for its impeccably rehearsed stars. Everyone is perfectly lit, arranged and garbed; it's almost as oppressive as it is delightful.

The Cole Porter songs have their cute moments, but with the exception of the dynamic Stereophonic Sound, they don't zing like the best of his work. 

It also doesn't help that Charisse's habit of saying lines like she learned them phonetically is made further awkward by the Russian accent. So much of what she says is identical to the Ninotchka (1939) script that you can't help but pine for Garbo's take on those clever quips.

None of this is truly bad, in fact it's all quite lovely, as if the baseline standard of quality for a Charisse and Astaire flick extends to the MGM musical. At its best though, this is a dance film and that is what makes it magical. There's some charm to be found in the early numbers, but things really get hot when these two masters of screen dancing pair up for All of You and Fated to be Mated. They are like sleek, limber animals together, effortlessly sophisticated, and beautifully in tune with each other. Charisse is also expressive and moving in a solo where she reveals she has given in to the beauties of French fashion.

Seen through modern eyes, it's a bit depressing to watch Charisse abandon her earnest interest in public works for more traditional femininity. Couldn't she keep the slinky hose and continue to visit power plants? But this is mid-century America, so the athletic prowess of her dancing in the final showstopper Red Blues will have to suffice as a reminder that she is still one powerful lady under all that silk and satin.

The film's image is clean, with more softness and grain than I've tended to see on the Warner Archive Blu-rays. Even with an impeccable, brightly-colored production like this one, I prefer that lighter touch when it comes to high definition.

Special features on the disc include the short Cole Porter In Hollywood: Satin and Silk, hosted by Charisse in her later years, a theatrical trailer for the film and two musical shorts featuring the tunes of Porter: Paree, Paree and The Poet and the Peasant Overture.

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

Aug 19, 2016

Book Review-- A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies
Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph
University Press of Mississippi, 2016

It's remarkable that film has lasted as a medium for more than one hundred years when you think of all the entertainment formats that have arisen and faded away in that time. That fact doesn't make the decline of cinematic celluloid much easier for many of the collectors who have devoted themselves to collecting 16mm and 35mm reels. In a new book, Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph immerse themselves in the quirky, devious and eternally fascinating world of the film fanatics who collected, stole, shared and sold reels of everything from cinematic masterpieces to cartoons, nudie cuties and television programs.

A Thousand Cuts is essentially a series of interviews with various collectors, each of them given a spotlight in which to tell their story. While many of the (mostly) men in this community know each other, and refer to one another in their talks with the authors, it is interesting that they are profiled separately, each providing their own unique take on the phenomena of collecting and its decline.

In addition to their biographies, Bartok, who was principal writer on the project, offers a detailed analysis of his subjects, examining their surroundings, the way they look and how they speak. You sense him judging them on occasion: the piles of belongings in their homes, the sound of their voices, the choices they have made to devote themselves to film, but for the most part he seems to feel affection for these lovers of cinema.

The interviewees include some who are famous, or even notorious, but most of them are best known among other collectors and the members of the film industry. It was interesting to get a closer look at the collector side of Leonard Maltin, who is best known for his books and reviews, and the chapter in which Robert Osborne reminisces about the film collection of his friend Rock Hudson had some wry insights that made me miss his presence as a TCM host. It was also wonderful to learn more about the fastidious Kevin Brownlow and his quest to rescue Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon (1927). These three are among the less eccentric characters in a book full of people so devoted to film that they will lie, steal and screw each other over to get the prints they want.

While Bartok establishes early on that most collectors are white, gay, unmarried men, he goes beyond that majority to profile some of the atypical members of the community. There's Rik Lueras, the only prominent Latino collector, and one of the rare happy family men, and Hillary Charles, one of the only women to have been active in the scene. He also features enthusiasts with a particular obsession within their film fanaticism, including Mike Hyatt, who spent decades restoring and protecting the legacy of Day of the Triffids (1962) and Mike Vraney of Something Weird video who admits he champions "beneath the barrel" sexploitation and horror flicks. There are also the young collectors who continue to preserve and honor 35mm, if not in as great numbers.

At times I felt disgusted reading about the devious acts of some of these collectors and occasionally I found myself also judging the way some of them discarded everything else in life to live for film, but in the end I felt I better understood the attraction of collecting. Bartok takes you inside that passion, giving you a feel for its sensory pleasures and the victory of preserving something that would otherwise be lost. You also begin to understand that often collectors collect because they can't help themselves and that pull will always to some degree remain mysterious to those on the outside of their obsession.

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

Aug 17, 2016

On DVD: Natalie Wood and Raymond Burr in A Cry in the Night (1956)

A Cry in the Night (1956) is an unusual thriller, standard in construction, but uncommonly warm with compassion. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this efficiently-paced production of Alan Ladd's Jaguar Productions marks an interesting transition for its stars, Raymond Burr and Natalie Wood. These established performers are seen here on the verge of developing new, powerful aspects of their personas.

Wood is Liz Taggart, the daughter of a police captain (Edmond O'Brien). While she canoodles with her secret fiancée Owen (Richard Anderson) one evening on Lover's Loop, the mentally unhinged, mother-obsessed Harold Loftus (Raymond Burr) watches from the bushes. You only get the slightest portrait of Liz before she finds herself abducted by Harold, and Owen knocked unconscious by her kidnapper.

Owen is picked up by the police, and when he is fully conscious, he introduces himself to his future father-in-law (Edmond O'Brien) in the worst possible setting. While Harold holds Liz captive, Captain Taggart works with the night shift police captain (Brian Donlevy) and Owen to find his daughter.

I found myself drifting during the police procedural scenes. Brian Donlevy and Edmund O'Brien are always reliably good, but they haven't got much to work with here. Their lack of engagement with the material makes their quest seem oddly without peril. The situation should be a nightmare for a father, but somehow the horror never fully connects with O'Brien. Donlevy seems similarly distant, if still seriously focused on the matter at hand.

Wood and Burr produce a more riveting tension, both of them unsettled by their own personal issues in addition to the situation at hand. Something tells Liz to not be completely afraid. She keeps her mind on self preservation, and recognizes that she is in danger, but she doesn't panic. It is as if she feels a slight kinship with this disturbed man. A woman who hides her romances from her family is not free. Perhaps she sees herself in her captor.

This film would mark a transition for the pair. The following year, Burr would leave behind the creeps he played for the bulk of his early career and find his defining role on television as Perry Mason. Following her role as a conflicted teenager in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), here Wood tackles her first truly grown up part and hints at the darker tone to come in the characters she'd portray in later films.

The pairing of Wood and Burr works because they are so deeply in touch with their own vulnerability. You can still hear the warm warble of the child actress Wood in her voice, and this offsets her determination to establish her power, both with her captor and her family. Burr is similarly complex, big, burly and threatening, but also lonely and frightened by the hold his mother has over him. His performance occasionally threatens to veer into camp, and it is his understanding of this man's fear that keeps it from going too far.

I hope this little flick finds a wider audience, if anything so that fans of these actors can appreciate the deeply sympathetic and highly-charged relationship Burr and Wood portray so movingly.

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 12, 2016

On Blu-ray: Bogie and Bacall on Blu-ray, To Have and Have Not (1944)

With the release of To Have and Have Not (1944), all four of the films Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together are now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

I've never been able to convince myself to pay much attention to the plot of To Have and Have Not. It's always been a movie of exciting sensations to me. Watching nineteen-year-old Bacall blow everyone away with her super sleek cool (the nervous teenager fooled them all by pinning her shaking chin low to her chest, thus inventing her trademark sultry look). Watching Bogie watch Bacall, and wondering how much of it is acting, because the legend of them falling in love in real life during production is the film's main claim to fame. Listening to Hoagy Carmichael's eternally hip crooning as a piano player in a Martinique bar; the perfect sexy soundtrack to this mesmerizing banter and flirtation.

Under Bogie and Bacall's romantic spell, the rest of the film becomes a spectacle to me too. I tend to remove myself from the mechanics of it all, and enjoy the careful visual composition of a group of hoods gathered around a dim table lamp, or the tightly-coiled Dolores Moran trying to convince Bogie to help her cause and get her man out of a jam. Even the dialogue comes at me in pieces, witty moments, great passages, elements that do make a coherent whole, though I don't feel the need to enjoy them that way.

The script has an interesting pedigree. The title is practically the only thing to survive Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway's novel. It was written by another Nobel winner, William Faulkner, but director Howard Hawks lays claim to the most memorable passages, like that legendary exchange between Bogie and Bacall where Ms. Lauren encourages him to "put your lips together and blow."

As well-made as Hawks' film is, it is the dance between these mesmerizing leads that makes it memorable. There's the timing, like the way Bogie waits a beat before reacting to that memorable line about whistling. He takes a moment to marvel at her eroticism before letting out a low, luxurious whistle. There is also a physical poetry to the pair, in the way they move around each other with curiosity and excitement or how Bacall's hair swoops down in a rippling curtain as she leans towards him for a kiss.

To cleanse the pallet there is Walter Brennan as Eddie, Bogie's sidekick, a dipsomaniac who is a tragically lost figure, though he's there for comic relief. His scenes, and the musical interludes where Bacall sings, grab more attention than the more serious business of smuggling and saving the resistance that is meant to drive the action. That story is well-crafted, but in the end, Bogie and Bacall provide all the action you need.

Special features on the disc include a brief documentary about the production and Bacall and Bogart's romance, a Lux Radio Broadcast episode featuring the pair, a trailer for the film and the amusing Merrie Melodies short Bacall to Arms (1946) which pokes fun at the sultry pair.

Other Bogey and Bacall Blu-rays I have reviewed:
Dark Passage (1947), The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948)

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

Aug 10, 2016

Book Review--Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical
Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo
University Press of Kentucky, 2015

Screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo is most famous for the eleven years he spent on an unofficial Hollywood blacklist, as one of the notorious Hollywood Ten, a group of movie industry professionals who refused to answer questions about their political affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the late forties. Even without that life-changing scandal, this sharp-witted, tart-tongued master of the screenplay would have made his mark in the movie industry. In Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, biographer Larry Ceplair draws heavily on the notes and memories of the writer's son Christopher to craft an epic take on one of Hollywood's greatest characters.

For his defiance of HUAC, Trumbo was convicted of contempt of court in 1947 and sentenced to a year in prison, after which he supported his family working through the black market. Before the committee, the writer had made his mark with successes like Kitty Foyle (1940), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). His best work was yet to come though. Using pseudonyms under the blacklist, he won two Academy Awards: for the script of Roman Holiday (1953) and the story for The Brave One (1956).

While journalists speculated as to who was writing these award-winning scripts, Trumbo was finally credited for his work on Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960), a process which the book covers in detail. It was a one man breakthrough though; the blacklist was still largely in effect. He was just too good to ignore anymore. 

The situation had gotten absurd. In one case when a studio informed him he was in competition with another writer for work, he learned that they did not realize the name of the supposed other writer was one of his many pseudonyms.

To his credit, Trumbo worked just as hard to end the blacklist for other writers as much as he did for himself. While his methods were not always appreciated by his peers, he was generous with his time, writing articles and making appearances in support of them and giving his extra work to writers in need (sometimes he would have to go back and fix a job he'd referred. He truly was the best at his craft.)

Though the blacklist years were detrimental to his own health and sanity and that of his family, Trumbo had the intelligence and strength to persevere and even thrive. After all, in his early career he had supported his mother and sister working nine years at a bakery, writing and getting volumes of rejection slips in his spare time. The man understood struggle.

Trumbo was a prickly, but fascinating character. While he had good instincts about when to play nice to better his circumstances, most of the time he spoke his mind freely and with great conviction. Often tethered his typewriter, his loyal wife Cleo and three children didn't get much of his attention. When he did focus on them, it was never dull. One son received an extensive letter from his father about masturbation upon his entry into college.

After breaking the blacklist, Trumbo nearly wrote himself to death catching up financially. He worked hard and he was passionate about his output. His dream of writing great novels was constantly put on hold, but he was not entirely unsuccessful in that regard, even writing the anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun. He also seems to have gotten a certain satisfaction from creating great stories for the screen.

Aided by the notes and memories of Trumbo's son Christopher, who wanted to write the biography but became too ill to continue, Larry Ceplair has written an epic-length examination of this most colorful of writers. The writer's dust-up with HUAC and the fall-out alone provide enough material for a book, but the rest of his life was just as busy and vibrant.

Ceplair's decades of study about his subject have paid off with a fascinating tale. Christopher's insights seem to have led him to investigate the richest veins in Trumbo's life and he has supported that inside information with his own detailed research. When you feel like you can hear the subject speaking, you know you are reading a well-rounded account.

For readers looking for a juicy Hollywood read, this book has its moments, but with its often dense analysis of the politics around the HUAC years and fall-out, it is definitely not a frothy read. It is an important book though, putting the life of an important figure in the Hollywood blacklist in perspective and celebrating the unique talent of one of the best screenwriters and wits in the history of cinema.

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

Aug 4, 2016

On DVD: Deanna Durbin and Kay Francis in It's a Date (1940)

As a Kay Francis and Deanna Durbin completist, I was delighted to see the pair starring in the recent Warner Archive release of It's a Date (1940), which is making its DVD debut. The first of four films Durbin would make with director William Seiter at Universal Studios, it's a breezy, charming little flick.

Francis is Broadway musical star Georgia Drake and Durbin is her adoring daughter Pam, who wants to follow in her mother's footsteps. After securing a promising new part written by playwright Karl Ober (S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall in his Hollywood film debut), Georgia travels to Hawaii to rest and prepare for her role. However, while she is gone Pam impresses Ober with her dramatics and he decides she is a more appropriate age for the part. She doesn't realize she has won the role away from Georgia.

Hoping to get acting guidance from her mother, Pam takes a ship to Hawaii. On board she meets millionaire John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon), and mistakes his attempts to lighten her mood for blossoming love. When she arrives in Hawaii, Pam learns the truth about the part, and plans to quit acting and marry John, who has quickly fallen for Georgia. There are many misunderstandings, but of course not anything these three can't handle.

While It's a Date is the best of her work with Seiter, who also made several musicals with Shirley Temple, it falls somewhere in the middle of her filmography overall, more amusing than her later movies, but not quite as slick or witty as earlier efforts like First Love (1939) or It Started With Eve (1941) the following year.

Durbin and Francis have an intriguing chemistry. They don't seem like mother and daughter, maybe more like sisters, but they exude the easy intimacy of a strong family relationship. Durbin found a similarly warm, and even more profound onscreen connection with Charles Laughton in Eve. She had a knack for making her costars seem to be at ease, which also extends to Pidgeon, who seems at ease in a looser, less dramatic part than the kind he would play later in his career.

While an unadorned soprano voice was Durbin's ticket to fame, she has presence beyond her musical ability. The scenes between songs could have stood alone as a solid comedy. Still, watching her croon Love is All to her beaming mother or moving an audience as she stands motionless singing a flawless rendition of Ave Maria is mesmerizing. Durbin didn't need elaborate production numbers or costumes to cast a musical spell.

The picture quality is essentially good, but low for a Warner Archives release. There are some noticeable lines and scratches, some that stay on the image for several minutes. The sound also seemed a bit scratchy at times. These issues are not likely to be deal breakers for Durbin fans eager to own this enjoyable film on DVD.

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.