Dec 28, 2018

Favorite Classic Film Books 2018

In the interest of diversifying my offerings on A Classic Movie Blog, I didn’t review as many books in 2018 as I have in previous years. However, much of what I did read inspired me and in many cases greatly expanded my film knowledge. These are the works that stuck with me. I have excerpted my reviews below, titles link to the full post:

The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women
Alicia Malone

While Backwards and In Heels focused on the full array of women working behind-the-scenes in film, The Female Gaze spotlights the films they have directed. In a fascinating move, Malone does this by recruiting more female voices. Of the fifty movies discussed in the book, she has written several extensive essays herself, which are complemented by shorter essays contributed by working and aspiring female film critics. When it comes to elevating the voices of women, Malone is clearly serious about covering her bases....The Female Gaze is a fun read and an essential work in a world where the film industry is starting to head down the right track where female filmmakers are concerned, but still has a long way to go.

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story
Mollie Gregory

University Press of Kentucky, 2015 (paperback 2018)

It took decades of fighting for women to find their place in the boy’s club of stunt work. In addition to sexual harassment, replacement by men for female roles, and closed hiring practices, women who did find work were held to higher standards. If a man made a mistake, he was forgiven. If a woman faltered, she was deemed unqualified for the job....

Gregory covers these struggles in detail, but she also consistently focuses on the joy of the profession. These women fought and continue to fight for better conditions and more access to jobs because they are passionate about performing stunts. In several stunt performer profiles, Gregory shares the many ways these women enjoy the thrill of this physical, risky, and rewarding work.

Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom
Leonard Maltin

Good Knight Books, 2018

Before the movie guidebooks, television review gig, and thriving podcast, film critic Leonard Maltin was a teenage cinema fanatic living in New York City. There he had access to archives, rare film screenings, and some of the best performers and creators in the business. He made the most of these connections, writing thoughtful reviews of what he saw, putting in diligent research, and coming to interviews with a wealth of knowledge about and respect for his subjects…. 

I enjoyed the earnest tone and thorough research of Maltin’s early writings, but it was the interviews that moved me the most. In his respectful, even reverential treatment of these people who for the most part had been forgotten by the public, or at the very least undervalued, he reminded me a lot of the gentlemanly way Robert Osborne would celebrate industry greats. As much as I have seen Maltin as a promoter and lover of all aspects of film history, I hadn’t seen this side of him before. It wasn’t surprising, but it was a pleasant revelation.

Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide

University Press of Mississippi, 2018

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Michael Benson

Simon & Schuster, 2018

So much of the story is related directly by people who made the film that you get a palpable feeling of what it was like to be there. For that reason, this is an especially lively and engrossing production history.

Having access to so much first source information has also enabled Benson to dig into the complexities of making the film, where second unit location shooting often held as much drama as Kubrick’s action at the studio. It is easy to see why movies go over budget and schedule when presented with how many tasks make up the creation of a scene, let alone an entire production. Understanding the importance of all of those elements is what made Kubrick an effective, and occasionally infuriating, filmmaker….

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this book is that I went into it not a particular fan of 2001: Space Odyssey and came away eager to give it another chance. Rewatching the film afterwards, I found the experience profoundly different because I had a greater understanding of the passion and intelligence behind it.

My deepest respect and thanks to these authors for all that they do to inform and entertain film lovers!

Dec 24, 2018

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 19, 2018

On Blu-ray: Brewster McCloud (1970) and Mame (1974)

It’s hard to believe that the rebellious Brewster McCloud (1970) and fiercely traditional Mame (1974) were released only few years apart from each other. I recently watched both films on new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive and marveled that they even came from the same decade.

I don’t think anything could match the perfection of Auntie Mame (1958), the first screen version of the story adapted from Patrick Dennis’ popular novel, but I’ve often wondered if Mame (1974) could have been at least a minor classic if the Broadway musical’s Tony-winning star Angela Lansbury had been cast in the lead. It would have at least been a lot more fun, as evidenced by Bea Arthur, who did get to reprise her Tony-winning stage role, and who steals every scene she shares with the miscast disaster that is Lucille Ball.

It’s endearing that Ball was determined to bring wholesome family films back to movie theaters, but unfortunate that she decided to be star instead of producer. To have observed Lansbury performing Mame on Broadway and take notes instead of admitting she owned the role takes a remarkable ego and lack of self-awareness and that is Ball’s greatest liability.

Ball is too old to play Mame, the actress who plays her mother-in-law in the movie is three years her junior, but much worse is the fact that she can’t carry a tune. As a result, her songs had to be patched together a few notes at a time. It’s still rough going making it through the many tunes she croaks in this lengthy film.

Aside from Arthur, the rest of the cast is decent, if not as snappy as in the 1958 film. The exception is Robert Preston as Mame’s Southern gentleman husband. He seems to have spent the seventies and eighties stealing scenes and brightening bloated films with his presence. Preston always had a special charisma, but in his later years he took on a more relaxed persona, seeming to enjoy the absurdity around him.

Mame deserves every bit of scorn it has received over the years. In addition to Ball's misstep in the lead, it’s too long and it often gets boring. That said, the costumes are gorgeous, Arthur and Preston are worth a watch, and there’s a sort of messy energy to it that won me over to a degree. It’s just barely an enjoyable fail.

The Blu-ray print looked good, though the film itself can be a rough watch since the lens seems to be slathered with something to make Ball look youthful. Vintage featurette Lucy Mame is included on the disc.

It's remarkable that Robert Altman’s brutal, demanding, hilarious, and raunchy Brewster McCloud (1970) was made four years before Mame. It’s a film as simple a boy who wants to fly, and as complex as all existence. There’s no way you can absorb what it has to offer in one sitting, even Roger Ebert admitted to that.

Brewster McCloud was Shelley Duvall’s first film, and she emerges with the best of her gawky wonder fully-formed. She’s such a mesmerizing presence that listening to her speak can put you under a spell. Her character glides through life without seeming to grasp reality, looking at the worst of life as unusual little happenings. She speaks with the cadence of Little Edie in Grey Gardens and the faux wide-eyed naivety of Marilyn Monroe, discussing an attempted rape like it was a minor inconvenience.

As the titular psychopathic dreamer, Bud Cort is a perfect fit for Duvall. He enters the action virginal, with rosy cheeks and childlike dreams, but he is fanatically self-absorbed. Still, you want him to break free of the banality of modern life, even if it would be nice if he could be more thoughtful about it.

Altman’s knack for assembling a pleasingly bonkers supporting cast is especially strong with McCloud. He has gathered a group of characters with complementary energies: the smooth calm of Sally Kellerman and Michael Murphy balancing the untethered quirkiness of Jennifer Salt and Stacy Keach (this man clearly relishes playing ridiculous roles). In essence they all refuse to play by the rules or face the consequences of rebelling.

It’s a glorious, bitter portrait of chaos that rejects convention, regrets it, and ends up laughing at everything anyway.

Dec 13, 2018

Streaming Diary: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans on Netflix

Unless you subscribe to their DVD plan, Netflix doesn’t offer a lot of classic films. However, when it comes to documentaries of interest to those who love the golden age of movies, it’s a different story. I’ve found several interesting flicks on the service, some of them even produced by Netflix. My favorites:

Quincy (2018)

Rashida Jones offers a loving, but honest portrait of her father in this intimate documentary about legendary composer, producer, musician and band leader Quincy Jones. With a beautifully arranged mix of archival and current footage, she explores his brilliance and flaws in equal measure, admirably giving proper attention to the women who put their lives on hold so that Jones could shine. Film fans will enjoy the brief, but interesting segment about the composer's film scores.

Faces Places (2017)

Influential French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda and the street artist JR are a charming pair on their essentially light-hearted journey through the French countryside. They travel in a customized van fitted with a special printer which makes oversized prints of the photos they take of people they meet on their travels. They plaster these pictures in public places, giving ordinary citizens a taste of fame and even more importantly, the feeling that they are worthy of attention. As interesting as the people they meet is the relationship between the two artists, who are divided by generations and emotional maturity, but share a deep compassion for and curiosity about humanity.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

When I saw this emotionally rich film about the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr for the first time on public television, I regretted not recording it, as I immediately wanted to watch it again. It explores both her Hollywood career and the passion for inventing that inspired her to create signal hopping technology, which would eventually be used to secure cell phone communication. It is a simultaneously thrilling and frustrating story, buoyed by Lamarr’s brilliance and wisdom, but ultimately tragic because she never fully got her due for what she accomplished during her lifetime.

Five Came Back (2017)

This three-part documentary is based on Mark Harris’ book of the same name about the films Hollywood directors John Huston, Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens made on the frontlines of World War II. Directors Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan talk about this diverse group of filmmakers, essentially the best of Hollywood at the time, and how they threw themselves into danger to document war. Several of the films the directors made are also available on the service, including: Nazi Concentration Camps (1945), Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), The Battle of Midway (1942), San Pietro (1945), and Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (1943).

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

I love the positive, loving tone of this tribute to actor, singer, and teen heartthrob Tab Hunter. The star has weathered a brutal industry with grace, an especially remarkable thing as he had the added burden of living as a homosexual when it could end a career. Hunter himself gets lots of screentime. He remains a mesmerizing presence.

Filmworker (2017)

Leon Vitali was once an actor with a thriving career which promised to ascend to great heights. Then he met Stanley Kubrick while working on Barry Lyndon (1975) and decided to give it all up to work for the director in any capacity he could. His enduring devotion, and the way he was in thrall to this demanding filmmaker, are the subject of this fascinating, if occasionally unsettling documentary. It can be hard to watch Vitali suffer for the art of another, putting stress on his relationships, health, and finances, because as a society, we are taught to aspire to great things for ourselves. However, the film taps into the passion that Vitali felt for his work, demonstrating how his efforts were instrumental to the vision Kubrick brought to the screen and how in the end, he thought it worth sacrificing his own spotlight.

Dec 11, 2018

Pre-Codes on DVD: Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934)

When Warner Archive announced that it would no longer be releasing the Forbidden Hollywood box sets, I was concerned, despite the company’s claims that it would still offer a steady stream of pre-code releases. While I still miss the sense of discovery in wading through those sets, I have been satisfied with the films from the period that have been offered since, including an interesting pair of new-to-disc flicks. I’d never even heard of Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934) before their recent DVD release, so I approached both cold, with varying results.

Passion Flower (1930) is a standard melodrama: all about the varying degrees of suffering its characters endure. It stars two Kays: Ms. Johnson as a wealthy girl who marries her chauffeur (Charles Bickford) and is disowned by her father, and Ms. Francis as her so-called friend who first offers financial help, but then decides she wants to help herself to her friend’s hubby. By then there are children in the mix, so her selfishness is especially cold-hearted.

This was one of the films where Kay Francis set the template for two key aspects of her persona: the dangerously sexy husband thief (see also A Notorious Affair [1930]) and the ever suffering glamour puss (Mandalay [1934]). Here she only imagines herself the victim though. Even among the pre-code stars, only Kay Francis could feel sorry for herself for stealing another woman’s husband.

Francis is essentially the reason to watch; Johnson and Bickford aren’t nearly as intriguing, at least partly because they don’t have much to work with. As the oldest son of the pair, pre-Rascals Dickie Moore is reliably adorable and keeps his parents in line with his tiny pout and seal eyes. Zasu Pitts is also a bright spot as a tender-hearted landlady. It isn’t a production of distinction, but everyone is playing reassuringly to type.

Hide-Out (1934) could have been a standard fish-out-of-water yarn, but its cast and the staging of the production give it life beyond its familiar plot. Robert Montgomery plays a womanizing New York gangster-lite party boy who gets himself in trouble with the law. He escapes to an isolated farmhouse, where he is quickly charmed by his hosts, the wholesome Miller family, and falls in love with their daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Director W.S. Van Dyke keeps the action light and brisk, transitioning confidently from the busy nightclub scenes in the first part of the film to the homier farm scenes to follow. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is enjoyable, with lots of songs and dancing girls bringing life to the city milieu and young Mickey Rooney taking on the role of entertainer on the farm as the youngest of the Miller clan.

There’s a great cast at play here and they are all at the top of their game. Montgomery, O’Sullivan and Rooney are especially lively—as are Elizabeth Patterson as Mama Miller and Edward Arnold as a tough, but jovial police detective. They all seem to be enjoying themselves together, as if the feeling of a happy set is translating to the screen. The laughs are a little more genuine than in a similar production and the relationship between O’Sullivan and Montgomery feels especially real as it develops from affection to love.

As I wondered where this surplus of cast camaraderie came from, it occurred to me that Montgomery might have had something to do with it. I thought about the way he always brought a little extra fire out of Norma Shearer in the romantic comedies they did, and how even playing an utterly evil character as he did in Night Must Fall (1937), he remained completely charming and infused the rest of the cast with his electricity. It’s something worthy of more thought: The Montgomery Effect. I’ve always thought he was underrated; now I’m thinking his appeal was also influential for his costars.

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

Dec 7, 2018

Streaming Holiday Classics: Features and Shorts for Rent and Free, Other Recommendations

While I have many Christmas movies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, I wanted to expand the offerings at my fingertips this year. I compiled a list of flicks available to stream so that I would have choices for any mood at my fingertips. 

Many of these picks aren't explicitly holiday movies, but have especially inspiring Christmas scenes and fit the overall spirit of the season. I've come to like these kind of films the best, because they lightly touch on the season instead of overloading me with holiday sentiment.

As a gift for you all, I'm sharing what I found! Free options are bolded (some require a library card).Enjoy:

A Christmas Past (silent short film collection)
I'll definitely be checking out this Kino Lorber release which has several silent shorts that are new to me. Check out the playlist for titles.

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)

I like having holiday shorts available to watch for the occasional down moment. This is a cute one.

Auntie Mame (1958)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
This is a new addition to my holiday rotation. One of those movies that gets me in the spirit, though very little of it is about Christmas.

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
I love that this tender film about lonely people finding each other during the holidays is starting to get more attention. 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Cary Grant is an angel. Of course.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
So much to love, but I especially adore that Sydney Greenstreet is a good guy here.

The Great Rupert/A Christmas Wish (1950)
My only complaint about this film: not enough squirrel.

Holiday Affair (1949)
Internet Archive/YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Another charming film that has slowly expanded its audience over the years.

Holiday Affair (Lux Video Theater, 1955)
Internet Archive
I can't vouch for this television version as I haven't watched it yet, but I am curious.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Internet Archive
Always amuses me that a film with such dark themes is embraced as a cozy Christmas classic.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
So many films with holiday themes are about loneliness. This is one of the most tender.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
I always need a little noir for the holiday season.

Little Women (1933)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
It's only a moment in the film, but the generosity of spirit in the Christmas scene always moves me.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. That's enough to make it a holiday movie for me.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
There's a lot to love in this film, but I always watch because Natalie Wood is so darn charming.

Santa Claus (1898)
If not the first Santa Claus movie, it's definitely one of the first.

Santa Claus (1925)
Another early take on Kris Kringle.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
Any time of year, but especially this time of year.

Susan Slept Here (1954)
Another new addition to the holiday rotation. Watched it when Debbie Reynolds passed last year and realized how well it suited the season.

The Thin Man (1934)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
That Christmas morning scene where Powell is shooting balloons off the tree. We should all keep that sense of play in our lives.

The Yule Log (1966) 

There have been many variations on the television Yule log over the years, but this one is the first (pictured above). It made its debut on the New York channel WPIX in 1966 and was aired every year until 1989 and was then revived in 2001.

My Streaming Wish List/Other Recommended Titles:

Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Because the scene where they unwrap their presents for each other is such witchy fun.

Blast of Silence (1961), Great vintage New York City locations during the Christmas season. It's not a cheerful story, but might be cathartic for those who feel grumpy this time of year.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), A wonderful depiction of the yearning for love and connection, and how that intensifies during the holidays.

Lady on a Train (1945), The scene where Deanna Durbin sings Silent Night on the phone to her father is one of my favorite film holiday moments.

Remember the Night (1940), I love the humble joy of the country house Christmas here.

Dec 4, 2018

Podcast Round-up: 6 Picks for Classic Film Fans

I’ve got another great batch of podcasts for classic film fans this month, but before I share my choices, I want to say congratulations to Brian Sauer and Elric Kane, because their lovely podcast Pure Cinema is now the official podcast of the New Beverly Theater, which is reopening after being closed a year for remodeling. This is one of my favorite podcasts because these two are so knowledgeable, but they’re never stuffy about it, always putting the focus on sharing their joy of cinema with anyone. I have shared installments of their podcast here before, but really any episode is worth a listen. Just be ready to add lots of titles to your to-watch list.

Now on to my latest choices. Podcast titles link to the episode:

NPR: Fresh Air
Karina Longworth

November 13, 2018

While I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Karina Longworth’s popular podcast You Must Remember This, I haven’t included them in my round-ups, because I figure this lady needs no introduction to film fans. It’s been great to see the media coverage she has gotten for her new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. I especially like this interview with Terry Gross, where she talks about the women Hughes seduced, promoted, and stalked in Hollywood and her efforts to humanize them when they are so often written off as notches on the mogul’s bedpost.

Art Matters
How Alfred Hitchcock Created Artful Suspense with Joel Gunz

October 29, 2018
Episode 21

With host Ferren Gippin, guest Joel Gunz of the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog discusses Hitchcock’s love of art and how he incorporated it into his films. I enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation about an aspect of the director’s work that doesn’t usually get such in-depth examination.

Cinema Shame
Hammer Horror Shamedown, Dan Day, Jr.

October 29, 2018

Guest Dan Day, Jr. discusses six recommended Hammer horror films and the long history of the studio with host James Patrick. It’s a wide ranging conversation that covers about any aspect of Hammer you could imagine. I especially enjoyed learning about the early history of the studio.

Film Connection
Billy Wilder: Kiss Me Stupid

November 12, 2018

In the fourth installment of a multi-episode Billy Wilder arc, Steven Saunders discusses the unusual and problematic Kiss Me Stupid (1964) with film writer Jeremy Carr. As much as I enjoy listening to podcasts about my favorite films or finding new discoveries, I think my favorite episodes are about films that haven’t won me over like this one. This thorough discussion helped me to examine some of my own reservations about this unusual entry in Wilder’s filmography and helped me to understand a bit more why it is such an uneven work.

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 32
Pioneering Women Filmmakers, with Shelley Stamp,George Willeman of Library of Congress

Mike Gebert discusses Kino’s massive new 6-DVD collection Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and the preservation of movies by women filmmakers with curator and professor Shelley Stamp and George Willeman of the Library Congress. While Stamp initially hoped to craft a set of Lois Weber films, she enthusiastically switched gears to curate a set that encompassed a wider array of female filmmakers from the silent era. Stamp has a lot to share about the early days of female filmmaking, what has until been lost to history, and how she helped bring these underseen films to a more extensive audience.

The Movies That Made Me
Robert Forster

October 22, 2018

This conversation with Robert Forster is epic, essential. If you listen to one episode in this post, make it this one. Forster discusses his career, going into great detail about working with director John Huston on his film debut, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). He also does a dead-on impression of Huston. Watch out Bogdanovich, you’ve got some competition in the celebrity impersonation arena.

Nov 30, 2018

On DVD: A The Thirteenth Chair (1929/1937) Double Feature

I love the Warner Archive single title double feature DVDs because comparing two versions of the same story makes watching each film exponentially more fun. The latest release features the 1929 and 1937 productions of the drawing room mystery The Thirteenth Chair, which was adapted from a 1916 stage play.

The story of a group of supposed murder suspects who participate in a séance in order to reveal the true criminal is essentially the same, but approached in a dramatically different fashion in the two films. It’s remarkable the polish the talkies took on from 1929 to 1937. In less than a decade, the concept of how to make a movie evolved into an almost entirely different form.

Director Tod Browning’s version of The Thirteenth Chair (1929) was the second screen adaptation, there was a silent version produced by the remarkably-named Acme Pictures Corporation in 1919. In this recital of gasping, moaning, and projecting to the back row, you never for a moment forget the story’s stage roots. You are also constantly reminded that the characters are British, with constant proclamations of “By Jove!” and “Dear old chap!”

This production is most interesting for the early glimpse it offers of Bela Lugosi, one year before he would find immortality as the star of Browning’s Dracula (1930). Lugosi’s style is the most stagy of the ensemble, but it doesn’t matter, because his screen presence is enthralling. His is the most streamlined and least fussy performance, despite the fact that he always appears to be shouting to the old ladies in the balcony.

While the MGM studios gloss and more sophisticated understanding of sound filmmaking certainly helps to elevate the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair, there are added quirks that amplify the amusement. The more potent presence of Dame Mae Whitty as the medium also centers the film in a way Margaret Wycherly never achieves in the earlier production.

Whitty steals the film with her comic flair and self-assurance, but the unusual supporting cast also has a lot to offer. As the closest friend of the murdered man, Henry Daniell injects an intriguing air of camp and a homoerotic edge into his performance. The glamorous and slightly salty ladies of the cast are also a fascinating bunch. Madge Evans, Elissa Landi, and Heather Thatcher never rose to above-the-title stardom, but they always add zing to a film and here they rattle and rave against each other with entertaining unease. The men are less distinctive, though Lewis Stone never disappoints and is pleasantly charismatic as a police inspector.

It’s a fun double feature, and the 1937 version could stand on its own as great entertainment.

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

Nov 27, 2018

Book Review--The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women

The Female Gaze: Essential Movie Made By Women
Alicia Malone
Mango Publishing, 2018

With The Female Gaze: Essential Movie Made by Women, Alicia Malone’s follow-up to last year’s Backwards and In Heels, the film reporter, host, and writer continues her invaluable quest to promote the work of women in film. Her message is two-fold: she is diligent in promoting the varied and rich works of female filmmakers, but consistently reminds her audience that not nearly enough women are allowed the opportunities in film their male counterparts are afforded.

While Backwards and In Heels focused on the full array of women working behind-the-scenes in film, The Female Gaze spotlights the films they have directed. In a fascinating move, Malone does this by recruiting more female voices. Of the fifty movies discussed in the book, she has written several extensive essays herself, which are complemented by shorter essays contributed by working and aspiring female film critics. When it comes to elevating the voices of women, Malone is clearly serious about covering her bases.

The essays are uniformly satisfying, though a mixed bag. A few were heavier on praise than analysis, though all made the impact of each work clear. Among the most enjoyable pieces were those where two writers covered the same film, enriching the discussion with their varying perspectives. All told, these are some of the best critical voices out there, and some of the new voices included here are promising.

Malone’s own writing style is the kind that is often underrated. She makes it all look a lot easier than it is. Her essays balance the essentials of plot, analysis, and director biography with thoughtful placement of each work in cultural context. She has a knack for distilling complex ideas into prose with flow which doesn’t get weighed down by the multitude of facts necessary to properly examine each work.

The films covered range from the silent era to the present day and encompass some of the best of cinema. Taken all together, it is a remarkable journey. A wide world of female-led moviemaking has evolved from the first female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Consequences of Feminism (1906) to Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time (2018), for which she was the first black woman to have a budget of over $100 million. The variety in between makes it clear that a “woman’s picture” can be anything, from comedy to horror, from the experimental to the mainstream.

The Female Gaze is a fun read and an essential work in a world where the film industry is starting to head down the right track where female filmmakers are concerned, but still has a long way to go.

Many thanks to Mango Publishing for sending a copy of the book for review.

Nov 23, 2018

2018 Holiday Gift Guide for Classic Film Lovers

'Tis the season for printing out pics of things you like and leaving them around the house as not-so-subtle hints for your less classic film literate family members. Let me give you a hand with some of my favorite picks for movie fanatics:

Kate Gabrielle

Full disclosure: Kate is a longtime friend, but I was a fan of her charming art long before we met. She's got quite the following in the classic film community; at the TCM Classic Film Festival, people act a bit like they're encountering a celebrity when they meet her. This is for good reason; her punny classic film themed gifts, ornaments, and cards are a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of her movie-related pins. I always wear her Méliès A Trip to the Moon (1902) moon pin on my jacket.

Alejandro Mogollo Díez

Alejandro is another artist beloved by classic film fans. His colorful portraits of classic film stars are gorgeous and he has a knack for capturing the spirit of his subjects, giving them a little more meaning than your typical fan art. I have lost track of how many shirts, stickers, and bags I have bought from his RedBubble shop. He's also got a shop on Threadless where, among other things, he sells slip-on sneakers with his art (praying he puts Elizabeth Taylor on a pair of those sneaks some day).

Buying gifts from tribute museum gift shops is a great way to express your classic film love and support the work of these organizations. I am newly in love with the Jimmy Stewart Museum, located in the actor's hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, which also produces an entertaining podcast. Their silver bell ornament with Zuzu's famous line from It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is especially sweet.

The Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas also has a lot of fun items. My favorite: the "morning oil can" travel mug.

There's also a lot of great DVD/Blu-ray releases that came out this year. Some highlights:

Yet another impeccably-packaged collection of Georges Méliès films from Flicker Alley.

An astonishing array of films in Kino Lorber's latest collection, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.

So good that Warner Archive is struggling to keep it in stock: the essential Bogart and Bacall Blu-ray Collection.

I also love the true independents entering the DVD/Blu-ray market like Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently who crowfunded her 2018 DVD release of Kidnapped (1917).

And silent film accompanist and score composer Ben Model's DVD Found at "Mostly Lost": Volume 2, which is a collection of films from the Library of Congress' vaults that were identified during the Mostly Lost conferences and released via his own label, Undercrank Productions.

Consider these suggestions a starting point. There's so much more out there for classic film fans, from books and memorabilia to classic film music and vintage-inspired clothing. Find out what makes the movie lover in your life tick and you are sure to find something they adore!

Nov 20, 2018

On Blu-ray: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

It must have been shocking for the period piece-adoring Hammer crowd to behold the hairy, groovy hippies dancing on pianos and making love under the dining room table in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). While there is the presence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to provide a reassuring bridge to the past, the production was a dramatic departure in style for the legendary horror studio. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, today this oddity plays like a document of another time.

The film begins by reaching into the past, one hundred years before the present day, when Van Helsing the vampire hunter drives a stake into Dracula’s heart. The action then jumps forward a century, where a band of teenage hipsters looking for thrills reluctantly agrees to perform a black mass in an abandoned church at the behest of the mysterious Johnny Alucard (played by Christopher Neame, that surname is ‘Dracula’ spelled backwards by the way), who they meet one night at a party. He rehydrates a vial of Dracula’s blood and reanimates the monster.

One of the mass participants is Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) descendant of Dracula’s nemesis. She has told her grandfather Lorrimar (Cushing), a specialist in the occult, of their plan and he fears for his granddaughter, anticipating the trouble that can come from disturbing the slumber of the evil living dead. When Jessica’s friends begin showing up dead with fresh neck wounds, he knows he must again take up the battle of his ancestor. It’s personal too, because Dracula has come back from the grave to get revenge on Van Helsing via Jessica.

Dracula A.D. 1972 was a mixed bag for me. Lee is magnetic in his brief screen time, but it is too brief. He also stays secluded in the church, depriving the audience of watching him sweep down gritty London streets with his cape sweeping behind him. The only time he gets any taste of the present day, is when he snacks on lady hippies on the down low in his bombed out lair.

Cushing has more opportunity to shine and it is fascinating to watch him translate his steely-eyed authority to another time period. He does get the chance to run the nighttime streets of London, remarkably taking on the mantle of action hero as he battles a young vampire and Lee himself. While Beacham and Neame are effective in their roles, they can’t begin to mesmerize the way these older stars do.

At least in part because of the anomaly it was in the Hammer catalog, this film has taken a beating over the years. It doesn’t deserve the scorn, but at the same time, it delights more in a handful of moments than as an effective whole. I was most disappointed that the film did so little with the novelty of a one-hundred-year old vampire emerging in another century. It would have been interesting to see Dracula behold the British youthquake and try to make sense of this new culture. It could have been horribly cheesy too, but I would have liked to have seen the filmmakers play more with the possibilities.

It’s well worth a look, with its funky soundtrack, attractive young stars, and great interactions between Lee and Cushing, but I was left craving more.

The sole special feature on the disc 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.

Nov 15, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD--Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries

At the peak of his career, director Frank Capra set aside his Hollywood work to make films in support of the US World War II effort. As a unit producer, director and advisor, he helped to craft a series of propaganda films to boost soldier moral and educate about the meaning of war. Olive Films has compiled five of these productions in a new collection hosted by Capra biographer Joseph McBride.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is the variety of tone and focus in Capra’s work. The Academy Award-winning Prelude to War (1942) is an upbeat call to action, with a practically cheerful narrator, though it motivates by evoking terror of marching armies of Nazis. The two-parter The Battle of Russia (1943) takes a more somber tone, acknowledging the massive loss of life the country experienced during wartime. The Negro Soldier (1944) is pure propaganda, speeding past the reasons for the civil war, US racial tensions, and the segregation of the Army to ensure young black men of their value to the effort. One of the more cinematic efforts, Tunisian Victory (1944) had a score by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, voice work by actor Burgess Meredith and input from director John Huston. The starkest film of the bunch is Your Job in Germany (1945), which sternly warns soldiers to remain wary of German citizens post Nazi defeat.

In addition to hosting the short documentary Frank Capra: Why We Fight, McBride provides low-key introductions for each film. I found these intros useful in understanding the context, reception, and meaning of each production. Apparently some of the intense battle scenes and footage of masses of marching Nazis were almost too effective, inspiring terror instead of the fire to fight in some of the enlisted men in the audience. Capra was aware of the effectiveness of his work, and so proud of his results that he wanted the films to be released to theaters so that he could get the praise he felt due to him.

McBride began his study of Capra because of contradictions he observed when meeting with the director and the skepticism those observations inspired in him give his analysis of the man an interesting edge. While acknowledging his talent, he also notes how Capra’s ego and hypocrisy played a role in his wartime work and film career before and after. The result is a revealing, fascinating portrait of the filmmaker.

As a package, this is as interesting a portrait of Capra as it is a rich historical document. It’s a great starting point for exploring the works of the Hollywood directors, also including John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Ford, who created cinema to support the war effort.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Nov 13, 2018

Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind Finally Sees the Light of Day

What would Orson Welles have thought of his meticulously crafted final flick The Other Side of the Wind making its debut on Netflix? That’s been on my mind ever since the streaming service announced that the long anticipated film would finally be making its debut on the platform, over forty years after filming wrapped. Would he embrace the wide reach of this technology that arrived long after his death? Or would he scorn a limited theatrical release and focus on home viewing?

As a classic film fan, I’m just grateful to be able to see it. For many years, I wondered if it was even possible. While I kept my expectations low, partly because the director himself was not able to oversee the final edit, I knew that a work by Welles would have something intriguing to offer, whatever the flaws.

The director had reportedly asked filmmaker and friend Peter Bogdanovich (he also appears in the film as essentially himself) to oversee final edits if he was ever not able to do so himself, and as that has happened and Welles’ partner and co-writer Oja Kodar has also had input in the completion of the film, I believe the final product is as close to his vision as could be achieved.

Welles’ story follows Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a director with a Hemingway-style macho vibe on the last day of his life. He has just completed a film, despite the fact that his leading man walked off the set in the middle of a key scene, and he is celebrating his birthday at an isolated ranch with a chaotic band of co-workers, friends, journalists, and hangers-on. That celebration is juxtaposed with scenes from the film, which appears to be a spoof of the intensely symbolic works of European filmmakers (apparently the movie was made very close to the house Michelangelo Antonioni used as a location for Zabriskie Point [1970]).

The assembly of personalities from old and new Hollywood alone is enough to make The Other Side of the Wind a remarkable film. It’s stunning to hear the distinctive voices of the likes of John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Lilli Palmer, and Edmond O’Brien saying new things so long after they have left us. Among the party guests is the new wave of filmmaking: Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, and Claude Chabrol among them. They all have plenty to say about film, each other, and Hannaford.

In contrast to the chatter at the party, the stars of the film-within-the-film Bob Random and Kodar remain silent, both on and off the screen. While they don't reveal themselves with speech, both are naked for most of their scenes, a combination of emotional self-protection and physical vulnerability that was new for Welles.

The aggressive sexuality of their scenes together is also a dramatic departure for Welles, who always claimed to be a prude and scornful of film nudity. Kodar was responsible for this change in the director. In addition to being a perfect intellectual match for him, she awakened eroticism in him which he seemed to be learning to process here.

It is in a way fortunate that The Other Side of the Wind is on Netflix, because the film requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. On first glance, there’s so much going on. Conversations flying from everywhere, quick edits, different film stocks representing the view of multiple cameras. It can take the whole running time to simply establish who everyone is, and the wide array of their motives and desires. On second viewing, I also got a better feel for the varied rhythm of the film, from the jittery jump cuts of the party scenes to the long, luxurious shots of Hannaford’s last work.

The complex production was filled with enough drama to warrant an entire book: Josh Karp’s The Making of the Other Side of the Wind, my review of which was one of the most read posts ever on A Classic Movie Blog. Film fans have clearly been hungry for this film. 

There is also a documentary about the film on Netflix called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), and while it is full of fascinating archival footage and frank interviews with key players in the cast and crew, it doesn’t capture the scope and spirit of the project the way Karp has. The film is worth a watch, but the book is essential.