Jan 26, 2018

Classic Film Tributes: My Favorite Google Doodles

Google has always made a practice of acknowledging classic film in its popular doodle art, but lately, it seems like there have been many more cinematic tributes. And I love it! 

This week's Sergei Einstein sketch amusingly made the filmmaker into a dashing cutie. Here's the real deal:

I guess he's still a cutie. In his way. In any case, it was great to see the master of montage get some attention. The doodle featured images from his films. You can get a closer look at the frames chosen in this GIF:

As there have been so many classic film tributes lately, I got to thinking about the doodles I have loved in the past and I did a search to find more images. Here are some of my favorites:

Actress Katy Jurado. Wonderful to see a Mexican actress in the spotlight.

Actress Marlene Dietrich. This evocative image was created by RuPaul Drag Race winner Sasha Velour, who dressed as the icon on the show.

Actress Dolores del Río. Another Mexican actress represented!

Cinematographer James Wong Howe. Though he worked most of his life in Hollywood, for some reason this doodle did not appear on the USA Google page. This of course did not stop classic film fans in the States from finding it.

Actress/Director/Mogul Mary Pickford. I love that this doodle shows America's (Canadian) Sweetheart with a camera, acknowledging her varied contributions to film.

Actress/Inventor Hedy Lamarr. The multi-talented star got a one minute montage for her doodle and it is lovely.

Designer Saul Bass. It is appropriate that this legendary title designer also got his own montage. It would be impossible to pick one image to represent him.

Costume Designer Edith Head. I didn't get a lot done the morning this one came out. A couple of those costumes stumped me and I had to figure out the films she'd made them for and who wore them.

It's a lot of fun to look at the international film doodles as well.

Animated Filmmaker Lotte Reiniger. This tribute to the German animation pioneer is one of the most beautiful.

Playback Singer Mo Raffi. How is there not one for the first lady of playback singing Lata Mangeshkar though?

Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya. At over three minutes, this has to be one of the longest doodle tributes, but there is a lot to cover.

Director Satyajit Ray. This is an especially lovely tribute. Gorgeous enough to hang on a wall.

Director François Truffaut. This image captures the spirit of the French filmmaker perfectly.

While I love the diversity of the Google Doodles, it would be great to see more actors of color represented. I'm thinking Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Anna May Wong, and Toshiro Mifune to start. How about some female directors as well? Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Lois Weber would all be great doodles.

There are so many other great Google Doodle film tributes. Do you have a favorite I haven't included here? Tell me about it!

Jan 17, 2018

On Blu-ray--Edward G. Robinson Spans Decades in The Sea Wolf (1941) and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)

Has Edward G. Robinson ever performed badly in a film? I don’t think the possibility was in his DNA. He is one of the most reliable stars of the studio age, making classics sing and elevating lesser films with an inborn understanding for character and performance. In a pair of films now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the actor demonstrates how his style evolved as Hollywood moved into the age of television.

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) stars Alan Ladd, though Robinson’s impact is such that the true matter of top billing can become confused. The film is a production of Ladd’s company Jaguar, which had a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Filmed in Warnercolor and Cinemascope, it is engineered to draw audiences away from their television sets, but in every other way this is a straight ahead noir production.

Ladd is an ex-con, ex-cop who has just left prison after serving time for a crime for which he was framed. Set on revenge and scornful of his unfaithful nightclub chanteuse wife (Joanne Dru), he takes no joy from his release. Robinson is the brutal mobster in his cross hairs.

It is the performances, and the sharpness of the color cinematography that give this San Francisco-set noir its power. One can never have enough William Demarest, and as Ladd’s ex-partner he doesn’t have enough to do, but he is a welcome presence for his brief scenes. As Robinson’s henchman, Paul Stewart is subtle, rather than sniveling, in his portrayal of a weak willed man who is destructive because he lacks the courage to act. As she tended to do in her later roles, Fay Wray plays Stewart’s ex-film star girlfriend with the wounded dignity and frustration of a woman who knows she is above it all and is waiting for the rest of the world to catch on. In her one extended scene, she gives Stewart a hard look, asking him for strength that he doesn’t have and in that brief moment you know all about her troubles.

While he has a lot to contend with as co-star with Robinson, Ladd is a fascinating tough guy. There have never been enough action heroes of short stature in the movies, which is a shame. There’s something explosive about a man who doesn’t lean on physical appearance to make an impact. His strength is in his focus and physical skill, which are much more exciting to watch than a towering man who seems to have the deck stacked in his favor.

Robinson dominates the film though, as he can’t seem to help doing. It’s terrifying the way he holds his victims in a seductive viper’s gaze, head still, eyes focused, often with only his jaw in motion, working the nerves with a barrage of abuse. He had great control of his body, like a trained dancer. There’s no wasted movement and he never flails, lashing out like a viper with surgical precision when he needs to make a point. Ladd has some of these qualities as well, but he’s got an icier core. You can imagine Robinson relishing a good meal; Ladd seems empty of that kind of capacity for pleasure.

Keep your eyes open for a brief Jayne Mansfield cameo in a nightclub scene.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film.

While Hell on Frisco Bay is an enjoyable crime flick, The Sea Wolf (1941) is a tightly-wounded Warner-style masterpiece. It has everything that made the studio great: powerful, charismatic stars, gritty atmosphere and brisk pacing.

Set on a ship with a rogue captain (Robinson) and a crew mostly unaware of the danger it faces, this adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Hawk (the name was changed to avoid clashing with Errol Flynn’s action flick of the same name) has that pulsing feeling of dread in found in other sea classics like The Ghost Ship (1943) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Much like the former film, the ship here often has the shadowy, misty look of a haunted house, foreshadowing the increasingly less mysterious evil at play on board.

With intense leads like Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino, it’s a wonder The Sea Wolf doesn’t explode from the tension. There are many spurts of action throughout the film, but it’s just as exciting to watch Lupino and Garfield have a quiet conversation or listen to Robinson discuss poetry. Whatever the tone of the scene, these three demand your attention in a strikingly visceral way.

The supporting cast is also uniformly solid. Barry Fitzgerald provides a hint of levity as the cook. As the ship’s doctor, Gene Lockhart also stands out; he’s a broken man who is painfully aware of what a sleazy enterprise he supports. In an early role, Howard Da Silva begins to develop that smooth voice which would eventually be such a slippery delight in crime films to come. As a reassuringly bland writer who is dragged onto the ship with Lupino, Alexander Knox provides some relief from the tightly-wound style of the leads and ship’s crew.

It’s a great ensemble effort, perfectly executed and beautifully paced. This breathless thriller is worthy of classic status.

This release is especially important because it is the first time since the film's release that the full original cut has been available. It was cut by several minutes for its re-release in 1949 and seeing the complete film, I am glad that Warners held off on this Blu-ray debut until that footage was restored.

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

Jan 10, 2018

Book Review: Francis Ford Coppola Talks Film and Innovation

Live Cinema and Its Techniques
Francis Ford Coppola
Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

When Live Cinema and Its Techniques landed on my doorstep, I approached it with personal interest, though skeptical that it would be of interest to the readers of A Classic Movie Blog. Written to be a guide to producing live cinema, a concept that Coppola had made the focus of a pair of elaborate workshops which he describes in the book, I thought it would perhaps be too technical to be of general interest. While this short volume does have its technical aspects, its appeal is more wide ranging than I expected, dipping into film and television history, Coppola’s career and his practical and humane philosophies about working with cast and crew. Call it a technical, autobiographical film history.

Coppola’s book is diverse because the concept of live cinema encompasses so many aspects of film and television history. The essential idea is that a film be made live, like an early television drama, but filmed using cinematic methods and staging. As a counterpoint to an industry that is almost exclusively made of canned product, it is meant to bring energy and a pioneering spirit back to a medium in which filmmakers typically use modern innovation to make movies in much the same way they have been made for decades.

In order to explain the idea of live cinema, and perhaps also convince filmmakers of its worth, Coppola conceived the book as a technical manual and production guidebook. He is a storyteller though, driven by history, full of interesting anecdotes and continually excited about his profession. Here Coppola tells his life story as much as he provides guidance, divulging how he helped his The Godfather leads bond by having them sit down to a meal together, sharing an embarrassing Academy Awards ceremony experience where a pot-laced cookie caused him to make an entertaining mess of the best director presentation and many stories of how he faced failure by taking even greater risks.

It’s an interesting variety of observations, interwoven with film and television history tidbits, which ultimately reveals a compassionate, passionate artist who approaches his craft with a collaborative, family-minded perspective. His focus on filmmaking and appreciation for different points of view and the needs of his cast and crew make me think of the best of filmmaking talent today. I don’t know if directors like Ava Du Vernay and Barry Jenkins have looked to Coppola as a role model, but their positive, enthusiastic and people-focused approached to production is similar and points to what the act of filmmaking should be in an age where the worst aspects of the industry are coming to light.

Live Cinema is essential reading for filmmakers and Coppola fanatics. More casual readers may be less impressed with the technical aspects of the book, but there are enough anecdotes and fascinating tidbits throughout to make it a generally engrossing read.

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

Jan 3, 2018

On DVD: Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell Triple Features

I’ve appreciated Warner Archive’s strategy of packaging lesser known flicks in thematically arranged sets. It’s a great way to rediscover forgotten titles and get exposure to movies that, while worth a look, might not be of enough interest to justify individual release. With the recent release of a pair of triple features starring the beloved character actors Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell I got a bit of what I expected along those lines, but also some wonderful surprises.

Sharp-witted, high energy Glenda Farrell was one of the most reliably entertaining supporting and sometimes starring performers of the studio age, finding her peak as the fast-talking bright spot in many films in the 1930s including a series in which she starred as reporter Torchy Blane. Oddly, she doesn’t quite have that magnetic presence in this trio of films. She is a welcome sight, but somehow not playing to her strengths.

The best of the three is The Law in Her Hands (1936), in which she plays wing woman to Margaret Lindsay. They are well matched as a pair of recently graduated lawyers who overcome sexism and their rookie status by hooking up with a mobster who is predictably in need of constant representation. Lindsay has a lawyer boyfriend who insists that she stop being a success at her career and settle down to cleaning his apartment and having babies. Unsurprisingly, the scenes with Lindsay and Farrell have the most zest.

Here Comes Carter (1936) is pretty much a flop due to the unpleasant presence of leading man Ross Alexander as an obnoxious radio gossip. There’s not a lot of Farrell zing in her performance as the on air star’s girlfriend. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had much to play off of. Sadly, Alexander would commit suicide less than a year later at age 29, on the anniversary of his wife’s own suicide.

Farrell fades into the ensemble as the former fan dancer wife of a stage producer in Dance Charlie Dance (1937). It stars the hapless Stuart Erwin as a man with an inheritance who decides to invest in a play so that he can raise money to buy a hotel in his hometown. Jean Muir costars as a kind secretary who helps the neophyte investor. The story, with its crummy show that becomes an accidental hit is reminiscent of The Producers (1967), though success leads to a different set of problems.

While the Farrell triple feature was a somewhat entertaining jaunt for this Glenda completist, the Guy Kibbee triple feature was full of delights. I found something to love in each of the films and enjoyed seeing a less sleazy side of this most valuable Warner Bros player (which is not to say his sleazier roles lack enjoyment).

Mary Jane’s Pa (1935) is an odd little flick about a newspaper editor (Kibbee) who gets the wanderlust and abandons his much younger wife (Aline MacMahon) and daughters. He thinks that he is leaving them financially healthy, but an investment goes sour and MacMahon must struggle to make the newspaper a success. As the years pass, she does just that and even begins to fall in love with a local politician.

Then Kibbee reappears, and though he deserves nothing more than a kick out the door, he bonds with his daughters, becomes a housemaid for his skeptical wife and finds out where the bodies are buried before it’s too late. It’s a pleasantly busy little flick, with an somewhat unsettling, precocious performance by Betty Jean Hainey as the titular Mary Jane. While it’s impossible to believe that Kibbee and MacMahon could have ever had the hots for each other, they are well matched and make an essentially ridiculous situation seem almost plausible.

In The Big Noise (1936) Kibbee is a textile factory owner who gets shoved out of his own company. He moves to California for his health, but ends up buying into a dry cleaner and taking on the mob protection racket. It was so fun to watch Kibbee play this determined, clever and lovable character. He perfectly embodies the optimism and can do spirit of a successful businessman. Marie Wilson of the My Friend Irma series is also charming playing a similar dim bulb character as a laundry employee.

My favorite of the trio is Going Highbrow (1935), in which Kibbee and Zasu Pitts pair up as a newly rich couple who become social climbers. Kibbee is reassuringly avuncular as a game guy who will cheerfully do anything to please his wife and Pitts is pleasingly high strung as a woman who may be a bit pretentious, but never cruel or disloyal.

The supporting cast here is especially delightful, with Edward Everett Horton reliably fluttering around the edges of the action. This was the first time I’d seen a film with June Martel, who was so down-to-earth and yet intriguing as a waitress Kibbee helps that I was thoroughly depressed to find she didn’t make many films. Judy Canova pops with charisma as Martel’s supportive waitress friend; she makes a lot of a role that isn’t written as fascinating as she plays it.

Overall this is such an interesting set, with unusual stories, great performances and a chance to see Kibbee center stage and at his best.

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.