Aug 15, 2018

On DVD: A Baby-Faced Robert Young in The Band Plays On (1934)

I don’t tend to be drawn to sports films, but when they star Preston Foster as a football coach, my interest increases. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, The Band Plays On (1934) benefits from this happy casting. It also stars an early career Robert Young and a pleasing young cast. In its modest way, it is cheerfully wholesome and playful, with enough drama and hard knocks to keep it from collapsing into a pile of sugar.

Young is one of four young men who are caught stealing a car. In the interest of reform, they are sent to play football with the altruistic Pacific University coach Howdy Hardy (Foster), who turns them into high school sports stars. The quartet moves on to college athletics and gradually find themselves in new trouble, with Howdy again faced with helping them redeem themselves.

The quartet of men, the other three played by Stuart Erwin, Russell Hardy, and William Tannen, have a natural, if unremarkable chemistry. They play well with the female lead, Betty Furness, as Taylor’s childhood sweetheart and Hardies’ sister, who variously mothers, romances and roots for the men. I found Erwin especially appealing in his role: a little less goofy than his persona typically dictates and revealing a more heartfelt performance than usual.

My admiration for the prolific and talented, but underappreciated Preston Foster continued here. He plays a familiar mentor role with great sensitivity, really seeming to feel the distress of his protégées and showing strength in a restrained, but confident manner. Foster is so good at communicating the interior world of his characters. By the end of a film, you know his characters as if they have become friends with you.

This flick was made to be a pleasant time-filler and it succeeds in that goal. I was more engaged than I expected to be.

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

Aug 10, 2018

On Blu-ray: Ron O'Neal's Finest Moment in Super Fly (1972)

I tend to think of Blaxploitation as a label for flicks made to thrill, with action, sex, and violence. They’re a showcase for charismatic stars and hip music, with a few stabs at social issues. That said, Super Fly (1972), which has a reputation for being one of the best so-called Blaxploitation films, both fits the bill and strays from the formula. This unique, thoughtful drama has plenty to get the blood pumping, but there’s a lot more happening here than a little excitement. I recently had the chance the revisit the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Like his father, photographer Gordon Parks, director Gordon Parks, Jr. has a knack for cutting directly to the emotions of his subjects. This applies to the way he peers into the uneasy world of Priest (Ron O’Neal), a drug dealer who wants out of the business, and the people who populate his inner circle. Just as importantly, he captures the mood on the streets of Harlem, with observant location shooting, revealing a world where anxious, preoccupied women rush home with groceries and young men on the make strut down the sidewalk with a grace that belies their struggles.

There’s a palpable life force to the city scenes Parks films, like blood rushing through veins. He documents the cracks in the sidewalk and the garbage piled alongside them. Parking tickets flap from windshields. When he moves in on the placid details of Priest’s plush home, you feel the hope in the dealer’s attempt to create a quiet space. He’s born for a quiet, intellectual life, but in a racist society, he’s got to hustle to live to his standards.

Curtis Mayfield’s soulful and soul-searching soundtrack hews closely to Parks’ vision. His lyrics serve as a Greek chorus, commenting on the world of Priest, but also go inside, finding the vulnerability and doubt beneath the hip defiance that is his shield. In a nightclub scene, the singer perfectly embodies those extremes, appearing confident and cool, but also sensitive behind those John Lennon specs.

In addition to being his most popular film, this is the role that reflects Ron O’Neal’s place as an actor. He would eventually perform Shakespeare on Broadway, and here you feel the gravity and impeccable approach necessary in a performer of that caliber. He’s able to communicate his feelings with wounded subtlety, broadcasting a conflicted interior life. Just like Priest, O’Neal was qualified for better things than he received.

In a pivotal moment, Priest makes an angry stand against the establishment, relying on the street smarts he’s acquired in a deadly business to save himself. When he succeeds, there’s a moment where a flicker of doubt breaks through. In a system created to see him fail, he can’t fully trust that he’s managed to push back. That moment describes a lot more than the story of one ambitious dealer and it’s why Super Fly is such a remarkable achievement beyond its style and genre trappings.

I was concerned about what a Blu-ray would do to the rough-hewn feel of the cinematography, but the image stays faithful to the feel of the film, which would not look right with a glossy restoration.

The robust special features include One Last Deal: A Retrospective Documentary, which is full of brilliant expert commentary, film commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, USC Professor of Cinema, Behind the Hog, a short documentary about the body shop that made Priest’s custom car, a history of the film’s costumes: Behind the Threads, and a revealing interview with Ron O’Neal in The Making of Super Fly.

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

Aug 8, 2018

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 More Great Episodes

Since I last wrote about some of my favorite podcast episodes, I’ve found many more fascinating shows to follow. Here’s what’s been grabbing my attention lately. All podcast titles link to the episode discussed:

Maltin on Movies
Patricia Ward Kelly

September 8, 2018

Over the past few months, I’ve become a big fan of this podcast hosted by Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie Maltin. These two have a lovely, warm rapport, which brings out the best in their guests. While they tend to focus on long-format interviews with current filmmakers and performers, there’s a lot in their back catalog to please classic film fans. I was especially charmed by this episode featuring Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. As many classic film fans know, Ms. Kelly has made it her life’s work to keep her husband’s legacy alive. Here she talks about her history with the legendary dancer and the one-woman show about her experiences with him that she has been performing in various venues. Kelly has a keen eye for detail, which gives her a knack for digging up revealing anecdotes. There’s lots of gems about his life shared here.

Eva Marie Saint

May 9, 2018

You can never hear too much from actress Eva Marie Saint. Well into her nineties she remains sharp, amusing, and despite experiencing great loss, full of zest for life. On this episode she discusses some of the highlights of her career with host Alicia Malone. She shares several stories about working with Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan in On The Waterfront (1954) and reminisces about her first meeting with Alfred Hitchcock. Though Saint doesn’t delve too much into her personal life, there is a poignant moment when she discusses how she has been dealing with her grief over the death of long-time husband Jeffrey, to whom she had been married for 65 years.

Warner Archive
Only One Ruta Lee
July 6, 2018

To promote the Blu-ray release of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Ruta Lee, who played one of the titular brides, discussed life on the set of the production. She is charming, clever, and an engaging storyteller with many vivid memories of working on the film. I love the way she describes her Bride partner Matt Mattox’s “beautiful, tight buns.” Such a saucy lady!

The “It” Girl/Dementia Americana
May 18 & June 1, 2018

This is one of my favorite podcasts. I love it so much it’s the only one I’ve seen live, but it rarely touches on my interest in classic film. Here, in a two-parter, host Phoebe Judge tells the story of Evelyn Nesbit, a Gilded Age celebrity who found success in front of the still camera and no end of drama with the men in her life. This episode only briefly discusses the few movies this pioneering supermodel made, Nesbit is more famous for her connection to a notorious sex and murder scandal than her film career, but it is interesting the way it draws in the world of cinema and its relation to fame.

American Masters
Lena Horne
July 5, 2017

In an interview from 1996, originally recorded for American Masters: Lena Horne, in Her Own Voice, the singer and actress discusses her early years in Hollywood, dealing with racism in the industry, her marriage to Lennie Hayton, and people who felt her civil rights work was counterproductive to the cause. Much of the pleasure of this episode is getting to hear Horne speak in that warm drawl for a half hour.

NPR: Fresh Air
Remembering Actor Tab Hunter
July 13, 2018

When Tab Hunter died in July, NPR’s Fresh Air paid tribute by re-airing a 2005 interview the actor recorded with Terry Gross. He talks about his memoir, being in the closet in the 1950s, his feelings about stardom, and the relationship he had with actor Anthony Perkins. As with Horne, it’s such a pleasure just to hear Hunter’s gently gravelly voice as he reflects on the past.

Do you have a favorite podcast that would be of interest to classic film fans? Do you host a movie-themed podcast? Please share in the comments!

Aug 1, 2018

On Blu-ray: Bacall and Peck in Designing Woman (1957)

There’s a particular kind of mood that a film like Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (1957) fulfills. It doesn’t go deep, but sometimes it is the beautiful milieu you deeply desire. Everyone onscreen looks well groomed, even the people who are supposed to be slobs, the sets are gorgeous, the clothes a marvel of construction, every character has something funny to say, and no one ever seems to truly suffer. Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this bit of cinematic eye candy looks even better.

Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall star as a sportswriter and fashion designer respectively, who meet cute, then ugly, then cute again and quickly marry. They barely know each other, which makes adjusting to daily life together an adventure. Her friends are arty, his are gruff. Clearly these social circles are hilariously not going to mesh well. And then there’s Peck’s ex, a sexy, and intellectually substantial showgirl played by eternal film stealer Dolores Gray.

There’s also a subplot about a gangster out to get Peck, but for the most part Designing Woman addresses the problem of how these people who are profoundly attracted to each other are going to bear living with each other. It’s a serious subject approached with hardly a forehead crease of concern.

Peck and Bacall don’t set off fireworks together romantically, but they are a pleasing comedy team. Both are more famous for dramas, but did just fine drawing laughs if they had the right script. This is perhaps the most success they both had in the genre, though Bacall's haughtily hilarious performance in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is a contender.

Gray owns all of her scenes, firmly equating sex appeal and class. She was made for the colorful, Cinemascope fifties, with her magnetic, if not too showy glamour and penchant for elegantly dominating a room. She’s also got a seductively lovely singing voice which she gets to show off in the production numbers There'll Be Some Changes Made and Music Is Better than Words both of which she is performing for a television camera, an amusing set up in that age.

For a film that looks so good, it isn’t surprising that the idea for it came from costume designer Helen Rose, who also created the costumes for Designing Woman. I'm sure plenty of ideas like that came from staff behind the scenes who didn’t get credit. Here Rose not only got credit, but her involvement was used to promote the film. One of the special features on the Blu-ray is an awkward, but amusing "interview" with Rose, where she filmed responses to pre-written questions for the use of the media.

In addition to the Rose interview, the disc includes 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.