May 30, 2017

On Blu-ray: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor in 36 Hours (1964)

36 Hours is an unusual exploration of World War II era deception and intrigue, examining the vulnerability of its victims and the ruthlessness of those in power. It is a tense thriller, but with a substantial emotional core. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

James Garner is typically reassuring as Major Jefferson Pike, an enlisted American in 1944 who is on his way to share classified information about the Normandy landings when he is drugged and kidnapped by Nazis. Groomed to look like he is years older, when he awakens Pike is told he is in a US Army hospital in Germany, it is 1950 and that he has suffered amnesia. It is all a lie though; the setting has been faked as a ruse to get him to share intelligence.

As Anna Hedler, a multi-lingual concentration camp survivor who has been recruited to pose as his nurse, Eva Marie Saint goes along with the deception in order to ensure her own safety, but her conscience troubles her. She is kind at heart. It is war that has shaken her moral grounding.

Rod Taylor co-stars as Major Walter Gerber, the mastermind behind the project, and perhaps the most confusing movie Nazi ever. He's soft-spoken, friendly and a gentleman to Hedler. The American accent he has adopted for his work makes him seem like an ally. It can just about sneak past you that this hunky Major is capable of great evil.

Not only is Gerber fighting against the allies, his whole business is deception. He doesn't hesitate to rob a man of his place in time or worry about what such confusion can do to his sanity. While he says he wishes to find a safe place for Anna after her assignment, in the meantime he seems to have no problem forcing her to lie to suit his purposes. Even that accent is devious, telegraphing safety while he fishes for details that could lead to the death of thousands.

In spite of all this, Taylor practically comes off as a hero in the film. He charms his way into that role, seeming to imply that he was simply born into the wrong side of history. Possibly much of this is due to the actor's appeal as a performer; would he have come off as well if he looked like Peter Lorre?

It's an interesting film, because while it works as a straight thriller, so much of it is about the vulnerability of the good in the face of evil. Gerber and Hedler both do highly questionable things, in varying levels of seriousness, but they are portrayed as essentially decent. You are meant to forgive them.

Saint is particularly touching as a woman who has been assaulted so frequently that she has become numb. She knows that she does not want to absorb the evil of her tormentors, but the vile acts she has endured have forced her to focus inward, making survival a priority above all else. Knowing she can never go back to the way she was, she struggles to reclaim the good within her.

The battle of wits between Taylor and Garner is absorbing, though the horror of what it all means is never far below the surface. Both men are engulfed by a system run by vicious self interest, and it appears to repulse them, but they never hesitate to do their duty. They seem to have so much common ground, though the definition of victory varies wildly for each of them.

This is an intriguing film, deserving a of higher profile.

The disc image is good. The only special feature is a trailer for the film.

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

May 25, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Life Really is a Cabaret at the Egyptian Theater

Last night at the SIFF Egyptian Theater, I was presented with a dizzying mix of glamour, glitter, bare buns and sobering reality.The 43rd Seattle International Film Festival presented a screening of Cabaret (1972) with a real cabaret before it, just like those live shows they used to have before movies in the early days. Headliner Robbie Turner led a lively cast of characters through a revue that had me laughing so hard I cried.

The evening began with a cocktail hour, where film goers had the opportunity to mingle and have their photo taken with Robbie and the evening's MC Mackenzie Miller. When I saw how gorgeous they were, I had to get a pic:

Robbie, KC and Mackenzie

I mentioned that I felt underdressed in the face area and Robbie said that I was fine and they were the clowns. I honestly replied that I love that, but later I wished I'd told him how important the glamour and entertainment they offered was to lifting our spirits. The act is fun, but their impact is serious business.

It really was a fun act too. Miller pranced on the stage in a glittering jacket and G-string to start the proceedings. Then came Turner, a dead ringer for Ms. Minnelli in his Liza drag. The adorable Abbey Roads pranced through a high-energy number and astoundingly leggy Visage "Legs" Larue made a few appearances, but for the most part this was Turner's showcase.

Several audience members were dragged on stage to participate in the act and they were all so game and amusing themselves that you had to wonder if they were plants. Of course, they seemed a little too embarrassed at first for that to be the case. I don't think I'd ever seen such a game group of people thrust into the spotlight.

Turner really captured the snap and bubbly energy of Liza, while mostly discarding the star's self-deprecating humor. It was great to see a full-on fierce Minnelli. 

I think the audience was primed to more fully enjoy the film, though it has a great deal of sobering reality mixed in with its glittering delights. Based on a pair of novellas by Christopher Isherwood, that are usually published together as The Berlin Stories, and a Broadway musical, director Bob Fosse takes this tale of hedonistic life in a city starting to kneel to the Nazis in a bitter, raunchy direction.

Cabaret has a gorgeous, affecting cast of characters, including model-turned-actress Marisa Berenson and the handsome Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper and Michael York. However, this show belongs to Liza and her master of ceremonies Joel Grey. The film captures the best of what these stars of the stage had to offer.

As the MC of a 1930s Berlin nightclub show, and a sort of one man Greek chorus of the Nazi terror to come, Grey is all edges and knowing grins. His decadence is candy coating for the fear and frustration at his core. He knows the good times are ending and he is going to dance all the way to hell with a face-stretching grin forced onto his face.

It is Liza that really grips you though. When she hits the stage she is fully in the moment, sacrificing everything she has to her performance. Watching her perform always makes me think of a passage in Sam Wasson's Fosse biography where she is leaping around telling the choreographer how much she loves show business. You can sense that when she's on the stage. Performing gives her life and that is intoxicating.

Much like her mother Judy Garland, Minnelli can be a goddess on the stage one moment and reveal her deepest hurts the next. She has her mother's gift for showing vulnerability, whether by speaking a little bit too loudly at a dinner party where she feels out of place or by speaking simple truths, with her huge eyes rimmed in tears, little droplets attaching themselves to those long, false eyelashes.

Liza's is a performance for the big screen. Though I had watched Cabaret at home several times, last night was the first time I truly saw it and appreciated the grand visuals and performances juxtaposed with horror and heartbreak.  

I am glad SIFF is dedicated to promoting great films through its archival offerings. This screening was evidence of why that attention to our cinematic heritage is so important: for the lessons that always need to be relearned, the beauty of the films that have come before and the charisma of the greatest stars.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

May 24, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Those Redheads From Seattle (1953) Come Home, In 3D!

I had the opportunity to see Those Redheads from Seattle at the TCM Film Festival this year, but it is so much more appropriate that I saw it for the first time in Seattle, the city where it premiered at the Paramount Theater in 1953. Last night Robert Furmanek, archivist and founder of the 3D Film Archive was on hand at the SIFF Uptown Theater to introduce this 3D Technicolor musical extravaganza for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival and held a brief Q&A after the film.

Furmanek began by asking how many redheads were in the audience, and amusingly enough it looked like there were a good dozen in attendance. He provided a useful background on the film and a brief history of 3D. Though Redheads was the first 3D musical to be released, most markets didn't present the film in the format. Furmanek discussed some of the challenges of projecting three dimensional cinema, from lack of the proper filters to headache-inducing out-of-sync visuals. He also showed the audience an original projector filter and a pair of "Original Magic Viewers" from 1953, in addition to sharing a brief clip showing restoration comparisons (these are always incredible to see).

Despite the fact that its plot is driven by death, deception and violence, Redheads is an essentially lighthearted film. It has all sorts of ridiculous contradictions (a wife who adores her husband, but has the shortest grieving period ever when he dies, a location that requires ten days of sled travel to access at the beginning of the film, though a character leaves the same place from a boat at the edge of town at the end). You just have to sit back and enjoy the silliness of it all, and it is enjoyable.

There is a redhead count of four in the film: Agnes Moorehead as the matriarch of the Edmonds clan; Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and Cynthia Strother as sisters. The blonde Kay Strother is the often overlooked little sister and with sister Cynthia starred as The Bell Sisters (they a popular singing duo making their screen debut). This jumble of movie stars (Moorehead, Fleming) and vocalists (Brewer, Bells) works pretty well. They keep it lively with dancing, singing and wisecracks and don't let you think too much about the tragedy of their situation.

Gene Barry handles the male lead originally meant for John Payne. You can see what the latter actor could have done to add intensity to the role, but Barry has sufficient charisma to make it work. Singing star Gene Mitchell doesn't have quite the same impact. As good as he is when he sings, his Sinatra-style laidback persona doesn't pop on the screen. He registers as a bit of a cinematic void, though his relaxed presence has a certain appeal; he doesn't seem to be trying too hard to win anyone over.

The film's five songs were written by a variety of reliable tunesmiths, including Jay Livingston, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Teresa Brewer's rendition of Baby, Baby, Baby was a hit at the time and released as a single. I liked her performance and Mitchell's take on Mercer and Carmichael's I Guess It was You All the Time. The Bell Sisters are also cute in their comic performance of Take Back Your Gold.

I've only attended a few 3D films in a theater, so I'm no expert, but this was the first time I really enjoyed the format. While there were plenty of gimmicky shots of things like newspapers, parasols and beer glasses flying at the audience, the film didn't rely on those moments for entertainment value. This was the first time I felt that the composition of the film was arranged to take full advantage of that depth. Director Lewis R. Foster seems to have understood how to make the most of the format, grouping his actors and staging action so that you truly feel a part of the scene.

The restoration was amazing, from the clean sharp image to remarkably good sound. Sometimes the sound levels changed a bit, which could be mildly jarring, but it was always sharp and clear. I felt like the best had been done with the material at hand and the improvement was remarkable.

At the post screening Q&A I asked Furmanek which film the 3D Film Archive was planning or hoped to restore next, and he described the reality-based, 1953 Korean war film Cease Fire! I was struck by how different that was from the film we had just seen, which is also dramatically different from the Archive-restored science fiction film GOG (1954) that made its screen debut before that. At this point I will line up for anything this group produces. If they wanted to attract a wider audience to the wonders of 3D, they've got a convert in me.

Yesterday the 3D Film Archive's restoration of the film was also released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

May 22, 2017

On Blu-ray: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (1962)

One of the most amusing things about Ride the High Country is that as aging cowboys, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are in some ways playing themselves. While director Sam Peckinpah was at the beginning of his career, and still finding the style that would have film fans cooing about "balletic violence", these two were ready to head for the hills. Their retirement-minded insouciance gives this entertaining western a soulful feel that elevates it to classic status. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

McCrea is Steve Judd, a retired lawman who is hired to guard a gold shipment. He enlists his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) and the young Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help. The two hired men are planning to steal the gold for themselves, hoping that Steve will go along with their plot. He catches them in the act though, and plans to make them pay for it once they reach civilization.

The trio encounters further complications when they spend a night at the farm of an overbearingly religious father and his fed-up daughter Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). She makes a comment that gives you the feeling he hasn't been so holy with his daughter, so it isn't surprising when she insists on joining the trio so she can meet up with her beaux and get married at his mining camp. He's a rotten guy though, who doesn't seem to mind his leering brothers taking liberties with her (Warren Oates is perfectly cast as one of the sleazy siblings). Steve, Gil and Heck rescue her, bringing even more trouble on themselves.

While they try to variously enrich themselves, save their skins and find redemption for a lifetime of sins, Gil and Steve bond over their contemplation of old age. When a bar full of young toughs launches into a fight, they watch with amusement, perhaps remembering how they used to live for that kind of chaos, though they want nothing to do with it now. They talk about the women they have lost, how they now have husbands, and grandchildren, while the two men haven't changed much themselves.

Steve and Gil see a greater future in Elsa (and Heck is turned on to the point of aggression). She is sharp and energetic and arouses in them a romantic longing for the days they could court her, in addition to fatherly concern. They protect her out of decency, and perhaps for the better way of living she represents. Though young, Hartley already has a stronger moral compass than these men ever had and they seem to admire her character as much as her beauty.

Though it doesn't go for a strictly happy ending, in Ride the High Country there is the feeling that violence is inevitable, but true good can prevail. These old cowboys know that they are good enough, though they haven't much more to offer than their honor. They begin to see it as their legacy and that takes the edge off their disappointments.

This would be Randolph Scott's final film. McCrea had also planned to retire, but while this was his last notable performance, he did get pulled back in the saddle for a few more flicks.

The disc image is clear and clean, with a nice bit of grain to it. Special features on the Blu-ray include the previous DVD featurette A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country and commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

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

May 21, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Restored Marx Brothers and Rediscovered Nitrate

I started my 43rd Seattle International Film Festival experience yesterday with a pair of films that could hardly be more different. The Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers is familiar to many classic film fans, while the experimental documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time is a mysterious work, full of discoveries.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Marx Brothers expert and author Robert Bader spoke before the screening at the Egyptian Theater and answered a few questions at a brief Q&A afterwards. It was great to have his perspective, because I don’t think I would have appreciated what a treat this screening was otherwise.

The print was fully restored, which made me realize how many bad prints of Marx Brothers movies I'd been watching over the years. It was such a novelty to see everything sharp and clear, even in scenes when the lights went out. Now that I've got a taste of it, I really want to see a great print of Duck Soup (1933).

Some moments that are believed to have been trimmed for a 1936 release, after the production code started to be enforced, were restored for this version as well. The scenes only amount to a few minutes, and they don't stand out much, but it was nice to see a print without the awkward jumps that are familiar to film fans.

I was also intrigued by Bader's comment that Marx brother Zeppo had a lot more to offer as a performer, but through various circumstances never had the opportunity to fully develop his comic persona. That got me wondering about what kind of an impact the famous brothers would have had if four of them fully flexed their comic chops. That certainly didn't happen with Zeppo's brief moments in this film; a practically blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. Poor guy.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Director Bill Morrison's dreamily-paced documentary plays essentially like a silent film, with a collage of film clips, photos and subtitles. I enjoyed viewing it in the intimate setting of the SIFF Film Center. It tells the story of a gold rush town in the Yukon and the discovery of a stash of over 500 nitrate films found under its ice rink, many of them thought to be lost. Several clips from the recovered film are shared, sometimes with titles added to give historical perspective. I look forward to writing more about this fascinating film upon its full release. Suffice to say, the unusual, nostalgic tone and visual style had me thinking: this is the greatest documentary Guy Maddin never made.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

May 18, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans

This is a great year for documentaries of interest to classic film fans at the Seattle International Film Festival. In this first week of the festival I will be attending Dawson City: Frozen in Time (2016), a film about the discovery of a stash of nitrate films in Yukon territory.

In the weeks to come, classic film fans will also be treated to screenings of the highly anticipated My Journey Through French Cinema (2016) and Robin Lung's film about the Chinese American woman behind the first Academy Award-winning documentary, Finding KUKAN (2016).

I was able to preview these films and enjoyed both. My thoughts:

Tickets are already beginning to sell out for the two SIFF screenings of My Journey Through French Cinema, featuring director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight [1986], Coup de torchon [1981]). While it covers many films, filmmakers, actors and craftspeople, the movie has a relaxed feel, like an afternoon spent wandering a museum with a knowledgeable art expert. The film has been aptly compared to A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995); both men explore their passion for film with a similar wonder, knowledge and excitement.

Tavernier began his career as an assistant director and press agent to director Jean-Pierre Melville, and has thus met some of the filmmakers and actors he admires. Aside from tales of his somewhat contentious relationship with Melville, he shares his conversations with Jean Gabin and stories of Jean Renoir. He talks about how it felt to watch these films in a post-war French theater and then how those kinds of experiences were later filmed by other directors. Actresses like Simone Signore and Romy Schneider are also given their due and Tavernier pays great tribute to the composer Maurice Aubert (L'Atalante [1934]), who had an enormous influence on the mood of classic French cinema. There is an overall feeling of being enveloped by the experience of cinema.

Having only experienced French cinema from an American point of view, I found it fascinating to learn about a wider breadth of films from an expert on the country's output. While most of the movies that Tavernier considers classics are familiar to many fans around the world, he introduced me to some new faces and lesser known works of directors I admire.

It's hard to believe this film is over three hours; you get caught up in its easy flow, drifting from one film, star or conversation, to another. I am delighted that a second installment is in the works. Can't wait to hear what this man has to say about Jacques Tati.

In 1942, KUKAN:The Battle Cry of China (Bitter Struggle) won the first Academy Award for best documentary. Then it disappeared. For decades, no one seemed to care than a pioneering Oscar winning work had dropped so completely out of sight. 

That changed when filmmaker Robin Lung became curious about the film, suspecting that the technical advisor Ling-Ai LI had played a more significant role in its production. Finding KUKAN follows Lung on a search of seven years as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of the film and Li.

It is both a personal and wide-ranging film. As simple as a fourth generation Chinese American digging into her own culture and as complex as decades of relations between Americans and Chinese. Lung shares the frustrations and triumphs of her quest, and in the process communicates why learning the truth about Li is so important to her and film history. The camera captures her joy when she makes a new discovery and her disappointment when film going to vinegar, disinterested interview subjects and the limitations of the restoration process impede her progress. 

Li, with her confidence, charisma and undying energy is appropriately the spiritual center of the film (a fascinating 1993 interview she gave in her eighties is heavily featured), but KUKAN filmmaker Rey Scott is also given his due. It is interesting to watch Lung begin to appreciate more fully the sacrifices the adventurous photographer made to capture his footage, acknowledging his contributions while helping Li to receive credit for her full participation. The film is as much about Lung coming to terms with her discoveries as it is about the journey she makes to uncover the truth.

Here's the schedule information for these documentaries. Links go to the film's page on the SIFF website:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Friday, May 19, 6:30 pm, SIFF Film Center
Saturday, May 20, 9:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Finding KUKAN (2016)
Saturday, May 27, 12:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, May 28, 7:00 pm, AMC Pacific Place
Friday, June 2, 4:30 pm, Ark Lodge Cinemas

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
Saturday, June 3, 3:00 pm, SIFF Film Center
Friday, June 9, 7:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

May 16, 2017

On Blu-ray: Sci-fi in Cinemascope, World Without End (1956)

Word Without End (1956) is an essentially unremarkable 50s sci-fi flick made more interesting by a few elements of its production, cast and design. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it is a good-looking film that plays it straight, though there are some unavoidably campy aspects to it.

It's the story of a pioneering space crew who become lost in time after completing the first mission to Mars. Finding themselves forced hundreds of years into a bleak future nuclear wasteland, the crew accepts its fate and tries to make the best of the situation. This involves dealing with the one-eyed, hairy mutants that terrorize all who attempt to set foot above ground and the odd population of apparently more civilized people who live below the Earth's surface.

Terrified of the beasts above, the men and children who have sought refuge underground have begun to shrivel away. Not the women though, who are vibrant, healthy, ready for the burlesque stage and very curious about the hearty, muscular crew that has dropped out of the sky. Jealous of these intergalactic hunks, the men are suspicious, even devious, as they resist the efforts of the crew to fight for life above ground.

Though it is essentially a 'B' movie, the production comes off as 'A' level luxurious, thanks to Cinemascope, Technicolor, elegant, if sparse set design and eye-popping costumes. Those last two were designed by the legendary pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, for the only film in which he would ever participate. For that reason, it isn't surprising that the ladies' dresses in this production don't leave a lot to the imagination (you don't get a close look at anyone bending over or even attempting to sit in the barely legal mini-dresses). These severely constructed garments are more than peek-a-boo frocks though; each is a mini masterpiece of structure and design, and starched so stiff that you half expect them to walk away on their own. Even the considerably more bland male characters below ground get to luxuriate in silky, bejeweled jackets and skull caps.

It makes sense that more established star Hugh Marlowe would be in the lead, but in hindsight the casting appears absurd when charming, hunky Rod Taylor, here in a supporting role, is clearly a more appropriate leading man. When Marlowe jumps into a fight scene with a mutant, you can't help but shake your head at the sight of Taylor standing on the sidelines. This was an early role for the always underrated Australian actor and one of the first hints of how magnetic he could be on the big screen. Amusingly enough, he would get the chance to play a lead with many similarities to this one a few years later in Time Machine (1960), where he would also battle barbaric hairy beasts in the future, though they would live below, rather than above ground (the plots were in fact so similar that H.G. Wells' estate sued the producers of World Without End).

While World Without End is never entirely campy, the outlandish costumes, the absurdity of a population of all anemic men and centerfold women and moments like Lisa Montell's highly expressive conversation with a mutant who is screeching at her from a cave do draw the odd giggle. It's not riotous fun, but it's amusing. Fans of Rod Taylor will not want to miss it.

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

May 11, 2017

Book Review-- Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood

Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood
Kirk and Anne Douglas with Marcia Newberger
TCM/Running Press, 2017

When I received Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood in my media swag bag for TCM Classic Film Festival, I didn't pay the book much mind. I mean that title: it didn't seem like this was going to be the most revealing of books. I've also never been a big fan of Kirk Douglas. His accomplishments in the movies and beyond are impressive, but even for an actor his ego is a bit off-putting. Eventually I decided to give it a look though, because these two have seen a lot and I figured they had to have some interesting stories to share about their years in the industry and as a couple of privilege.

The book alternates between letters, exchanged by the title couple and with people they have known, and their memories, both about the events they reference and the events leading up to them. There is a lot more biography to this than I expected and it is necessary to put all these communications in perspective. To understand Kirk Douglas movie star and Anne Douglas Hollywood matriarch, you need to see him as a young, impoverished Jew in New York City and her as a privileged, but often neglected boarding school student in Europe.

Douglas' massive ego is on full display here, and if you are not a fan, or even if you are, some of his actions will make you want to scream and throw the book across the room. Anne must have been deeply in love, or insane to put up with the insensitive way he treated her in the early years of his courtship. In one passage, Kirk, who has been stringing young Anne along, takes her with him to pick out an engagement ring for his other love, Pier Angeli. Amazingly enough, this was not a deal breaker.

The Democratic Douglases with pal Ronald Reagan in 1987
After years of uncertainty, the pair marry though, and against all odds, the match endures. While the love letters between them can be syrupy to the point of being vomitous, it is clear that they were deeply devoted to each other. In a time where the husband ruled the roost, Anne always found a way to prevail when she sensed her husband was on the wrong track. While Kirk requires loyalty and submissiveness he can't always return, he also seems to understand that his wife is intelligent, driven and needs power and the ability to pursue her own interests.

Because the Douglases have given each other the freedom to live fully, their stories are that much more compelling. Their correspondence and stories are full of interesting tidbits about the movie business, the people who populated it and its social structures and politics. It's encouraging to see how much of their fortune they have donated to causes they hold dear, like the construction of playgrounds for children who would otherwise have unsafe equipment. There were moments here so touching that I was moved to tears.

While the Douglases don't hesitate to admit that things haven't always been perfect between them, and that Kirk's infidelities and self-absorption have played a role in their story, you get the feeling there's another, darker story beneath it all. It's in the way they reveal some things, but nothing terribly deep. The way Kirk asks his son in a letter, "Was I a good father?" as if he knows something went awry. You look at his massive charity works and see the good in it all, but is there a search for redemption here? It isn't likely that question will be answered. 

This is an engrossing, often touching book. It carefully presents exactly what we are meant to see, while hinting at those mysteries throughout.

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

May 9, 2017

Pre-code Double Feature: Ladies of the Jury (1932) and Smart Woman (1931)

This week I watched  Smart Women (1931) and Ladies of the Jury (1932) a pair of pre-codes now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Smart Woman

In one of the sharp young woman roles she frequented after her her silent cameo girl days, Mary Astor plays devoted wife Nancy Gibson, who learns her husband Donald (Robert Ames) is stepping out on her. Devastated, she decides to use indirect means to win back her man. She invites his paramour Peggy to stay with them for the weekend (Noel Francis, who was always good for stealing a man if Claire Dodd wasn't around), with her equally devious mother (Gladys Gale) in tow. Also on the guest list: Sir Guy Harrington, a much sought-after bachelor who pursued Nancy in vain on a recent cruise. Guy knows Nancy only needs him to make her look desirable, but attends in the hope of changing her mind about him.

It's hard to understand why Nancy wishes to win back her disloyal husband as Ames is neither attractive, witty or charismatic. Sadly this is partly due to the fact that the actor was nearly dead from alcoholism and could not hide the trauma of his personal struggles. However, it's hard to picture how even in better health this unappealing man could have believably won back his betrayed wife.

After getting her blood going with a few sessions of vigorous exercise outside with Sir Guy, Peggy isn't so sure she wants Donald. It's clear that she's not the kind of woman to settle, but in this case, she doesn't seem off the mark.

Though it has its moments, it doesn't add up to much more than blandly pleasant entertainment. Edward Everett Horton manages to slide in a few zingers in a supporting role as Donald's brother-in-law.

The image is watchable, though a little rough around the edges. There are quite a few pops on the soundtrack. There are no special features on the disc.

Ladies of the Jury

In a rare solo leading role (most of her headliners were as the detective Hildegarde Withers), the always reliable character actress Edna Mae Oliver is delightfully silly in this comedy that shows its stage play origins. In a madcap precursor to Twelve Angry Men, the actress is Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane, a wealthy juror who takes control of a murder trial when she is initially the sole member to believe in the innocence of a French former showgirl (Jill Esmond) who is accused of murdering her estranged husband. Taking place almost entirely in a courtroom and a jury deliberation room, the film relies heavily on fast-paced dialogue and constant jokes to grab audience interest.

With her long face, snooty voice and broad mannerisms, I would think that for the most part a little Edna Mae goes a long way, but with plenty of quips, characters and twists to keep the action going, she never wears out her welcome here. She somehow manages to be both broad and subtle, playing big with her voice, but also sneaking in extra layers of meaning with a roll of the eyes or a dip of the chin. In addition to being able to speak fluent French with the defendant, she implies that she knows plenty about the sort of life that could lead to a predicament in which the lady on trial finds herself.

In the sort of wealthy matron role that would generally involve a lot of pearl clutching, Crane plays against the type as a woman who enjoys the freedom and privilege her wealth gives her and is appreciative of the more playful, racy elements of life. She's also a straight shooter, whose morals prevent her from hiding behind that privilege. Those morals extend to saving innocent ladies, but not so much to following the law in order to achieve that goal.

The heavily populated supporting cast ranges from wooden to humorous, no one threatening to outshine Oliver, but most of them providing good support, and occasionally a few laughs. By the end of the 64 minute running time, it feels time to move on, but this flick is good fun.

Though it has lots of tiny dirt marks and scratches, the image is watchable and generally good. There are no special features on the disc.

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.

May 8, 2017

A Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway! Win a Copy of the Early Women Filmmakers Anthology

I am excited to once again participate in a giveaway with Flicker Alley. This time you have the opportunity to win the absolutely amazing Early Women Filmmakers Anthology on DVD/Blu-ray. From the avant garde to the mainstream and including filmmakers from around the world, this is a delightfully diverse release. I am so excited to see these films gathered together in a thoughtfully compiled, six disc collection.

For more about the release and how to enter the giveaway, I'll let the folks from Flicker Alley tell you the rest:

Did you know that more women worked in the film industry during its first two decades than at any time since? Or that a woman created some of the first narrative films ever made? Or that in 1916, the highest-paid director in Hollywood was a woman?

Despite their incredible achievements, many early women filmmakers have been largely written out of film history, their contributions undervalued. On May 9th, Flicker Alley presents Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology on Dual-Format Edition Blu-ray/DVD, showcasing the work of 14 of early cinema's most innovative and influential women directors, re-writing and celebrating their rightful place in film history. Read on for your chance to win a copy! 

International in scope, this groundbreaking collection features over 10 hours of material, comprised of 25 films spanning 1902-1943, including many rare titles not widely available until now, from shorts to feature films, live-action to animation, commercial narratives to experimental works. 

Directors include Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Mabel Normand, Madeline Brandeis, Germaine Dulac, Olga Preobrazhenskaia, Marie-Louise Iribe, Lotte Reiniger, Claire Parker, Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport), Leni Riefenstahl, Mary Ellen Bute, Dorothy Arzner, and Maya Deren. 

These women were technically and stylistically innovative, pushing the boundaries of narrative, aesthetics, and genre. Going back to the beginning of cinema, this collection makes visible the tremendous directorial contributions women made all around the world. 

Beautifully restored in high definition, Early Women Filmmakers features new scores by Sergei Dreznin, Frederick Hodges, Tamar Muskal, Judith Rosenberg, and Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. 

Bonus Materials Include: 
Booklet Essay:By film scholar and Women Film Pioneers Project Manager Kate Saccone.
Audio Commentary: For Lois Weber’s The Blotby author, professor, and expert onwomen and early film culture Shelley Stamp, courtesy of Milestone Film and Video.

For a complete list of films included on the set, please visit Flicker Alley. Release Date: May 9, 2017 List Price: $69.95 Order now on sale for $49.95 through May 16th! Watch the trailer: 

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology on Dual-Format Edition Blu-ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on May 22, 2017. Enter to win on the form below and please let me know in the comments section why you are excited about this collection!


Good luck everyone!

May 5, 2017

Seattle International Film Festival 2017 For the Classic Film Fan: What I Plan to See

I am beyond excited that it is almost time for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival! This year the event will run from May 18 to June 11. My hometown festival is one of the largest and most diverse in the world with over 400 films, which encompass a rich variety of cultures and perspectives. Even covering a selection of the archival offerings and classic film-related titles on the schedule is going to keep me busy for the next month.

Here are my top picks for SIFF 2017, with showing dates, times and theaters:

Those Redheads From Seattle
(1953) in 3D

Tuesday, May 23, 6:30, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Though I was disappointed to miss the screening of this musical during TCM Classic Film Festival, it makes more sense that I would see the restored film in the town where it premiered in 1953. Agnes Moorehead in a 3D film as the mother of a troupe of burlesque performers? Couldn't possibly be a bore.

The Marseille Trilogy:
Marius (1931)
Saturday, May 27, 11:00 am, AMC Pacific Place
Fanny (1932)
Sunday, May 28, 11:00 am, AMC Pacific Place
Cesar (1936)
Monday, May 29, 11:00 am, AMC Pacific Place

I enjoyed watching Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy last year, so I am especially excited to catch another trilogy, this year a series of films written by playwright Marcel Pagnol. At first I was disappointed that they would not all be played the same day as with the Ray movies, but given the length of the films, that would probably be insanity.

Animal Crackers (1930)
Saturday, May 20, 1:30, SIFF Cinema Egyptian

I don't think I have ever seen a Marx Brothers film on the big screen. Reason enough to catch this at the festival, especially because it is bound to be fun to watch with an appreciative audience.

Cabaret (1972)
Wednesday, May 24, 7:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Egyptian

Drag artist Robbie Jones will perform a "Cabaret-inspired" revue before the screening of this Bob Fosse-directed classic. This is going to be a hot night.

Brainstorm (1983)
Monday, June 5, 6:30 pm, SIFF Cinema Egyptian

I don't usually cover films from as late the 80s, but I thought it important to give a little attention to Natalie Wood's last movie. The themes of technology gone awry seem even more apt today than they did over 30 years ago.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) with live soundtrack by The Invincible Czars
Thursday, June 8, 7:00 pm, Triple Door

It has been a while since SIFF has used the Triple Door as a venue for a silent film showing. This is going to be a top festival event for fans of classic films.

The Dumb Girl of Portici  (1916)
Saturday, June 3, 11:30 am, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova starring in a film directed by Lois Weber. If that isn't exciting enough, this newly-restored film has been missing for a century.

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
Saturday, June 3, 3:00 pm, SIFF Film Center
Friday, June 9, 7:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

I am so curious to see which films and artists director Bertrand Tavernier has chosen to highlight in his survey of classic French cinema. This documentary will have lots of archival footage and appears to cover a wide array of filmmakers. Can't wait.

Love and Duty (1931)
Tuesday, June 6, 6:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Ruan Lingyu, the "Greta Garbo of Shanghai", stars in this 2014 restoration of a drama that was thought lost until a print was discovered in the 90s. The fabulous Donald Sosin will be returning to SIFF to provide keyboard accompaniment.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Friday, May 19, 6:30 pm, SIFF Film Center
Saturday, May 20, 9:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Another film that I missed at TCMFF and am delighted to have another opportunity to see. It is a documentary about a stash of nitrate films that was discovered buried in an old swimming pool in a Yukon territory town and the place that those films document.

Finding KUKAN (2016)
Saturday, May 27, 12:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, May 28, 7:00 pm, AMC Pacific Place
Friday, June 2, 4:30 pm, Ark Lodge Cinemas

Ever heard of Li Ling-Ai, un-credited female producer of KUKAN, a documentary that won an Academy Award in 1941? I hadn't before now, but I'm certainly curious to learn more about her.

I will share my thoughts about many of these films over the next month. Please join me, and if you are going to be in Seattle, catch a screening or two and let me know what you think!

May 4, 2017

Book Review--Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez

The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez
Dan Van Neste
Bear Manor, 2017

Though co-star to Stanwyck, Garbo, Young and Crawford, Ricardo Cortez has never achieved big name recognition in his own right. Classic film fans know him and love him, especially pre-code fanatics, but he is not familiar to the average movie fan. He never made a bonafide classic, but he's been in a lot of well-made films, like the underrated 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Midnight Mary (1933) and Wonder Bar (1934). Now in a new biography, Dan Van Neste gives this fascinating, but notoriously private actor and director his due.

I was amused to learn that the famous "Latin" star Cortez was born Jacob Krantz in New York City. For a while he played along with studio bios that gave him Spanish, French or Viennese heritage, but eventually he wanted his public to know that he was proud of his Jewish roots. He set aside his education as a young man to help his family, doing a lot of odd jobs, from physical labor to Wall Street number running, until he became interested in the stage. The movies followed.

Hollywood first recruited Cortez as a replacement for an increasingly troublesome Rudolph Valentino. As the Italian actor was popular among his peers, this made life difficult for Ricardo in his early years as a contract player. He was often the victim of nasty gossip and lies, though enough people came to know him that he eventually had his defenders.

In the first part of his book, Van Neste describes Cortez's turbulent, but essentially busy career, balancing it with insight into the actor's personal life and personality. Though a devoted professional with a sensitive character, he could be cold, cruel and self-absorbed, and the author is fair in his assessment, digging into his motives, but not giving him a pass for bad behavior. Cortez was both adored and reviled on the set, depending on who you talked to, but he never got on the wrong side of a studio executive, which helped keep him working, if not exactly getting the best parts.

Cortez had a pair of uneasy marriages before he found a happy third union, and much is devoted to his first, with actress Alma Ruben, who struggled with morphine addiction. Van Neste deems the actor poor husband material in his early years, though his first marriage in particular did get under his skin. When he finally did find wedded bliss, it was only because he found a mate who would play by his rules.

While he wasn't always a popular man, he wasn't despised either and he was loyal to his family, starting both of his brothers on successful careers in the film industry. The athletic actor also knew how to take care of himself, staying interested in life with hobbies including sports, fashion and finance. When he would experience various lags in his career, he'd take control, filming his own screen test, launching a vaudeville tour or scheduling a series of personal appearances to demonstrate his lasting appeal to audiences and earn more movie work, eventually including a much coveted series of assignments directing 'B' films.

In essence, Cortez was a complex, fascinating character, who for the most part lived life by his own terms. Despite the challenge of researching such a private man, Van Neste provides a great deal of insight into his personal life and character as well as filling in many professional details. While the author laments not having more personal insights from the actor to add to his story, I thought he did a fine job creating a vivid, revealing portrait of Cortez.

The second part of the book provides more detailed information about Cortez' career in film, television and radio. In addition to chronologically listing productions and sharing basic cast and crew details, there are excerpts from reviews and additional tidbits about each production. I thought that was an effective way to share these bits of information without impeding the flow of the main narrative.

I know that this book has been eagerly anticipated by many and I am happy to report that it is an entertaining, informative read that does its subject justice. A must for fans of the actor and pre-code lovers in particular.

Many thanks to Bear Manor for providing a copy of the book for review.

May 2, 2017

Vitaphone Varieties: Volume Three (1928-29)

Of all the sound-on-disc systems that were created for early talkies, Vitaphone was the only one to find true commercial success. As a result, there are hundreds of musical and comedy shorts that were filmed and recorded using the format. These films are some of the most charming examples of how Hollywood approached the early years of the talkies. Usually running barely more than ten minutes, and presented like a stage performance, they were a showcase for vaudevillian stars who were working in a slowly dying industry, while another was being born in its place. Now in its third volume, Warner Archives has gathered sixteen more Vitaphone shorts on DVD.

My first significant experience with Vitaphone shorts was at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2016. Attending the festival can be a test of endurance; there's always a point where you begin to feel so exhausted you could just as easily sleep for a day instead of standing in line for another movie. That's where I was the last morning of the event, as I waited to see a program of Vitaphone shorts, presented by Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project. I knew that the program was a must-see, but I didn't expect to be so thoroughly entertained by the offerings. It was just what I needed to renew my enthusiasm.

As much as classic film is a part of my life, I thought the humor in these shorts, both viewed in the theater and on DVD, might be too corny to reach me, or the early experiments with sound a bit awkward. While there are instances where the shorts are more interesting as historical curiosities, more often than not they work as pure entertainment. These are simple performance pieces, so there was no need for the stars to adapt acting styles to appear realistic in a dramatic performance. All they had to do was grab and keep audience attention, just like they did on the vaudevillian circuit, and that ability often has a timeless appeal.

The films in volume three are essentially an even mix of comedy and musical shorts, with many combining the two. Among the purely musical clips are the dreamy harpists of The Kjerulf's Mayfair Quintette in A Musicale Melange and the more sportily energetic Horace Heidt and His Californians, the most physically active big band I've ever seen. In one of the films shown at TCMFF, Zelda Santley does a series of goofy impressions in Little Miss Everybody, including a pre-film Mae West. Yiddish stage sensation Molly Picon performs a few of her bits in The Celebrated Character Comedienne, another film that showed at the festival, but the humor in this, and the corny down home Jest for Awhile hasn't aged as well as some of the other bits.

Some of the comic pieces are timeless because they are so enjoyably unusual. As a highly theatrical pianist in The Madcap Musician, Herschel Henlere is a dead ringer for John Waters regular David Lochary and even has some of that actor's nutty flair. The Big Paraders is a short review full of charming, high-kicking large people who seem to relish being given a rare chance in the spotlight. Comic team Edison and Gregory make high-pitched music with inner tubes and tire pumps in the ear-splitting The Two College Nuts.

It's a fun collection and an interesting window into a highly experimental period in film history.

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