I shall wait until you are falling and then I shall be holding the net to catch you.
-Jean Renoir to Ingrid Bergman when she was enjoying great career success. True to his word, he gave her the lead in Elena and Her Men (1956) when she found herself in slump. The film was a success for both.
The Chameleon Thief of Cairo
Solstice Publishing, 2018
Since his 2011 debut, Jack and the Jungle Lion, I’ve always looked forward to Stephen Jared’s next novel. His retro books are classic movies on the page, trading off between noir and adventure genres. Of the six titles he’s written, the most heartfelt are his Jack Hunter series, which started with that debut, continued with The Elephants of Shanghai (2013) and now reaches intriguing emotional depths in the third installment: The Chameleon Thief of Cairo.
Set in the forties, this series revolves around the adventures of movie star Jack Hunter, his wife Maxine “Max” Daniels and his pilot friend Clancy Halloway. The books have always been engrossing: full of action, romance and engaging characters. I remember being impressed by the flow of the first novel. It really popped.
While The Chameleon Thief of Cairo has the thrills of its predecessors, it also has a lot more emotional depth. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-style excitement of the first two novels has matured into something meatier. Time begins to catch up with Clancy and his conversations with Jack, and a new love he meets over the course of his adventures, paint a richer portrait of these characters.
This time around the period is post World War II. Jack and Clancy are lured to Cairo to rescue an old friend of the latter, but are greeted with a more complex and dangerous situation than they had anticipated. The horror of the war throws a shadow over all they do and see, and it is clear that some are still fighting and for the wrong side.
It is possible to connect with this story without having read the rest of the series, but knowing the history of the characters made it more meaningful for me. I like where Jared is going with Jack Hunter and his crew and look forward to more adventures.
Many thanks to Stephen Jared for providing a copy of the book for review.
I’ve always been a bit iffy about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), as I feel anyone should be about a film that takes an essentially light view of kidnapping innocent young women from their homes. Perhaps that is why so much time has passed since the last time I saw this musical which, subject matter aside, is one of MGM’s greatest artistic and box office successes. Though I am always going to have a sense of unease about this production, it is nevertheless one of the great dance films and it is that element that I enjoyed the most while revisiting the production on a new Blu-ray double-disc set from Warner Archive.
In a busy frontier town, sharp-witted settler woman Milly (Jane Powell) is briskly wooed by burly backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel). Unfortunately, he neglects to mention to his new bride that in addition to her husband, she will be cooking and cleaning for his six brothers. Milly understandably revolts, but she is also in love with Adam. She makes the best of her situation by tutoring the other brothers in proper courting behavior.
The boys get a chance to try their new skills at a barn raising, but the afternoon ends in fistfights with their romantic rivals. Shut out of the town society where their intended brides live, they resort to kidnapping the women they wish to marry. Their escape is made complete by a valley-blocking avalanche. Now Milly must keep the frightened women “pure” until they can escape home in the summer thaw.
Brides was based on the short story The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was a parody of The Rape of the Sabine Women from Roman mythology. It’s a much rougher story than the film adaptation, with Milly not only suggesting the abductions, but also helping the men to abduct the women at rifle point. Of course mid-century moral conventions required that the film version of Milly have nothing to do with such a plot and show proper indignation.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the plot of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is that in the midst of the fifties, a mainstream film featured a woman who prevailed over seven men in a war of wills. As much as the men in the film do to deceive, overpower and dominate the women they meet, it is Milly who ultimately controls what happens. She takes Adam to task over his trickery, changes the slovenly habits of a house full of men, and sets the terms for a long winter in which she must care for and protect six young women. Though she is content in playing a traditional caretaking role, every major decision made in her marriage and on her homestead is heavily influenced by her wishes.
As with many musicals though, the plot doesn’t get the bulk of attention, and rightfully so. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is most famous for its athletic and physically challenging dance choreography, performed by the seemingly fearless dancers Tommy Rall, Marc Platt and Matt Mattox, with added gymnastics and tumbling feats from Russ Tamblyn. These men are the core of an astonishing barn-raising scene, featuring dozens of male and female dancers, which is understandably one of the most famous dance sequences to be put on film.
In a relatively small space, the Pontipee brothers face off with an equal number of rival suitors from the town as they try to woo the most eligible young ladies in the settlement. This sizable group of dancers leaps and twirls through the barn worksite. Recalling her time as one of the brides, Julie Newmar remembered the intensity of the atmosphere on set, where the peril to the performers was ever present. Each leap onto a sawhorse, every cartwheel or fast-paced turn, even stepping between beams on the open foundation could lead to a life-changing, or even fatal, injury. That all this raw athleticism was translated into such a visually beautiful number makes it all the more remarkable.
All told, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers works because it appears effortlessly entertaining. The songs are hummable, the stars and their supporting players pleasing, and everything moves at a brisk, breezy pace. It would be legendary for the power of its dance sequences alone, but it really sings because it works on all those different levels. I will probably always feel queasy about the kidnapping, but there’s no denying the MGM magic at play here.
The two-disc Blu-ray includes two versions of the film (which have been made available before in DVD): one made in Cinemascope, the other in standard format, so that MGM could ensure its desired level of quality whatever technical equipment a theater had. I’ve heard of big fans of the film noticing different inflections, etc. between the two versions. I haven’t seen it enough to catch those nuances, though I did notice that the standard version was in dramatically better condition.
Special features on the disc include the 1997 documentary Sobbin' Women: The Making of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' which was hosted by Howard Keel and features interviews with several of the key cast members. There’s also a newsreel, a vintage short and a setting that gives viewers the opportunity to browse the songs in the film.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Before Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone made his name with spaghetti westerns, he began his career taking a stab at the sword and sandal genre with The Colossus of Rhodes. It is astonishing that the director’s first credited directing job is an epic-sized production like this one. While he did have some uncredited work covering directing duties on a couple of productions before winning this plum assignment it is an impressive work of genre filmmaking for a director still learning the ropes. The film has now been released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive.
The Colossus of Rhodes is the kind of movie with large crowd scenes, grand set pieces, orgies, betrayal, and slaves who are forced to taste suspicious goblets of wine before they stagger two steps and collapse in the middle of the dancing girls. I suspect I dug it partly because I was in the prime mood for it: drinking a beer, eating take-out and slightly logy from a warm summer day.
The film’s basis is the true story of a massive statue of the Greek sun god Helios (Apollo in the film) that was erected in the harbor of the Island of Rhodes. It follows Darios (Rory Calhoun) a military hero visiting his uncle in Rhodes. There he becomes involved in various plots to bring down Serse, the evil king.
Though packed full of all the earthquakes, battles and coliseum scenes the genre has to offer, Colossus can move a little slow, and ultimately, it goes on for too long. It looks good, but the action never really cooks. Still, it has well-crafted grandeur, beautiful people, hedonism, and the unmatchable Rory Calhoun in a shorty toga, with his twinkly eyes and fluffy forelock.
The deadly Colossus itself is a great prop, clever and horrific. It straddles the entrance to the harbor, and men inside open a trap door and pour flaming oil upon any vessel that passes between its spread legs. True to the cinematic spirit, the statue is shown to be about three times the height of the actual structure, which now only survives in historical renderings.
The Warner Archive disc includes a commentary by film historian Christopher Frayling. Image and sound are good, with the varied soundtrack by Francesco Angelo Lavagnino coming off especially well.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom
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. Now a great treasure trove of this early work is compiled for the first time in Maltin’s latest: Hooked on Hollywood.
The book is organized into four parts: a collection of essays about film and television, Maltin’s early interviews, a collection of more in-depth later interviews, and a final section which is a fascinating history of RKO studio. Much of the material collected here has been in storage for over forty years, and is as remarkable for the pre-VHS time it captures as much for Maltin’s already well-developed critical and interviewing skills.
Maltin draws honest, candid comments from stars like Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell and Henry Wilcoxon, who perhaps let their guard down a bit in the presence of this curious and unusually knowledgeable young man. He draws an even more interesting perspective from those in the industry who were not superstars, and thus had the advantage of a perspective out of the spotlight. The conversations with prolific radio, stage, television and film performer Peggy Webber and television and film director Leslie H. Martinson are two of the best, revealing the experiences of a pair of industry legends who are not household names, but have contributed a lot and have a knack for telling a good story.
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.
This was an enjoyable, educational read and one I plan to revisit.
Many thanks to Good Knight Books/Paladin Communications for providing a copy of the book for review.
For any movie, it means what you make it mean….Movies are Rorshach tests. There is what you mean when you make them and then there’s also what people get out of them. And sometimes those two things are not always the same.
With a title like My Past and that cover art with Bebe Daniels giving a “seen all, done all” look, I expected a different film than I got. It is pre-code in tone and deed, but more subdued about it: racy, but not saucy. What I liked best about this film now available on DVD from Warner Archive, is that I found a new appreciation for the charming Daniels.
The plot is familiar: a gorgeous showgirl (Daniels) is loved by a wealthy older man (Lewis Stone), but she’s got the hots for his younger, unhappily married friend (Ben Lyons). It’s all just a framework for beautiful costumes and settings, and reliably appealing performers like Stone, Lyons and the always marvelous Joan Blondell as Daniels’ best friend.
There are some typically pre-code sleeping arrangements and flexible ideas about marriage, but the thing that makes it pop is the chemistry between Daniels and Lyons, who were married from 1930 to her death in 1971. This isn’t a screen partnership with a Bogie and Bacall sizzle, but there’s a warmth between them that elevates the familiar material. It’s pleasant to see them at play together. You feel the affection.
My introduction to Bebe Daniels, as with many classic film fans, was as the distraught musical star Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street (1933). Though she is technically the star of that production, it is Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell who people remember. I now realize this sour, if not entirely unsympathetic character was not the best way to get to know her, much like seeing Norma Shearer for the first time in The Women (1939) is not a great introduction to her persona.
By the time of My Past, Daniels had been in films for over twenty years. She came from a theatrical family and had been before the camera since her silent short debut as a child. Though she faltered a bit at the start of the talkie age because she’d become associated with the overdone musical fad, Warner Bros saw her potential and picked her up for a great run in the 1930s. This film was the start of that period, which also included starring roles in Counselor-at-Law (1933) and in the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) (in an amusing scene in My Past, she cheekily signs a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel).
Here, for the first time, I finally appreciated what made Daniels appealing to audiences. She’s got the beauty and glamour of a movie star, but there’s always a part of her that feels relatable in a deeply humane way. It’s not the gal pal warmth of Blondell or the weary shopgirl earthiness of early Joan Crawford, but rather an air of truly taking things to heart. It was satisfying to see her take center stage, where her appeal could be fully appreciated.
While this isn’t a remarkable production, it offers many low-key pleasures and will especially satisfy pre-code fans.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
The critics were apoplectic. They seemed to feel that Little Edie, in particular, was just crazy, and therefore wasn’t capable of giving informed consent for the filming. I totally disbelieve that: Edie managed her life just fine after her mother died. She was eccentric, certainly, but not crazy.
-Muffie Meyer, about Grey Gardens (1975)