Sep 28, 2018

On Blu-ray: Billy Budd (1962) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

While Billy Budd (1962) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) take widely different approaches to a period milieu, they are both at their best when they spotlight their charismatic performers. The literary-sourced Budd and life-based Bean were recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

I’m generally not fond of the dudes on a ship genre, but Billy Budd has its own rhythm and transcends any genre trappings. I’ve found that my enjoyment of high seas drama depends dramatically on which dudes are aboard and that is one of the strong points of this film based on a stage play drawn from Herman Melville’s final, and posthumously published, work.

Set in 1797, all of the action takes place on a naval vessel where na├»ve crewman Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) has been taken from a merchant ship to serve. With dreamy eyes and dandelion fluff hair, the crew is baffled by the gentle, optimistic Budd, though they eventually admire his positive perspective. The sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan) feels threatened by Billy’s comfort with and desire to befriend him. He attempts to frame the young man for attempted mutiny, which ends up being deadly on multiple counts.

In his film debut, Stamp makes Billy an almost otherworldly character. He always seems a step removed from the pain and fear that plagues the rest of the crew members. This frightens Claggart, who is perturbed that he can't control him with fear and perhaps a bit disturbed by his attraction to Budd. He is the sort of man who gets an intense thrill from whippings and drawing blood, that this joyful boy should exist in his orbit dampens that erotic charge.

The captain of the ship (Peter Ustinov, who also directs) knows how destructive Claggart is for his men, but he fears Billy more; he could lead the crew to a more lusty mutiny than the master-at-arms. As a disillusioned elderly sailmaker, Melvyn Douglas, wearily watches Budd move towards his doom, though even he can’t see where it all is leading.

Billy Budd hits its stride when it begins to focus on one-on-one conversations. The tension between Ryan and Ustinov, and especially Stamp and Ryan is presented with menacing intimacy. These private moments form the dark core of a story the crew cannot begin to understand, increasing the overall tension. What is expressed stands equal to the repressed fears and desires of all aboard but the innocent Billy.

Special features include an interesting commentary in which director Steven Soderbergh talks with Terence Stamp about his experiences making the film. Perhaps because the pair worked together on The Limey (1999), they have a good rapport and their conversation has a nice flow.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a more comic enterprise. Its humorous success varies, depending on who has the spotlight in this loosely history-based western full of cameos. Director John Huston pulls together some good tall tales, but never weaves them into a cohesive whole.

As the frontier-based Bean, Paul Newman moves from the bad side of the law to impose his own morally-flexible definition of justice. He lusts after the distant star of the stage Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner), falls for a young Mexican girl (Victoria Principal), and tangles with an unruly cast of characters.

Newman is the weakest part of Roy Bean. He doesn’t have the ornery toughness or the comic juice to make his crusty character pop. While the actor could be funny in the right circumstances, he had a bad habit of seeming more amused by himself than the audience. That quality is at its worse here.

A diverse cast of characters take up the slack, in a series of amusing vignettes. Anthony Perkins sets aside his jittery persona in favor of a wry restraint as traveling man of the cloth. Leaning into his gravelly voice, Tab Hunter works against his pretty boy looks as a shifty, but oddly sympathetic outlaw. Most amusing is Stacy Keach as the bandit Bad Bob. No one relishes an over-the-top role like this actor; he looks like he is having the time of the life, which adds to the humor. Roddy McDowall and Ava Gardner also demonstrate reliable ensemble chops as a hapless lawyer and Langtry respectively.

In the end, the mess of stories, punctuated by a scene-stealing black bear, becomes a bit exhausting, but the cameos help to renew interest when the action flags.

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

Sep 26, 2018

Book Review--Stuntwomen: The Untold Story

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story
Mollie Gregory
University Press of Kentucky, 2015 (paperback 2018)

Having missed it upon its initial release, I was delighted to have the chance to catch up with Mollie Gregory’s thorough and fascinating Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which recently came out in paperback. The book, which covers the history of stuntwomen in Hollywood from the beginning of the industry to the present day reveals the unsung heroines of the profession and their struggles fighting for rights, jobs, and respect in a field known for cronyism and sexism.

For most of the history of Hollywood, stuntwomen have had to work hard to win jobs, but it didn’t start that way. In the silent era, where there was little framework for the profession, stunts were performed by adventurous, athletic women like Helen Gibson, who threw themselves into the work with little training or guidance. There was a special freedom to being a daredevil behind the wheel of a car or stunting on a motorcycle or the back of a horse when in the early days of film these women didn’t even have the right to vote.

When the industry became a full-fledged business in the 1920s though, women were shoved aside. In addition to the female directors and producers who found themselves replaced by men, stuntwomen were put out of work in favor of men in wigs. Performers of color also found themselves out of luck, with painting down white stuntmen a common practice on film sets. Despite these roadblocks, new trends in the industry, such as the rise of blaxploitation flicks and the increasing numbers of action-based television shows in the 70s, led to more demand for performers, which with the addition of activism and organization began to turn the tide for stuntwomen.

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.

The same held true for outspoken women. Julie Johnson was one of the best stuntwomen in the business and one of few to win a coveted stunt coordinator job. However, when she demanded higher safety standards for her performers on the set of Charlie’s Angels, her contract with the show was not renewed. This led to a lengthy, dispiriting court battle in which the principled Johnson endured brutal treatment, but brought much needed attention to the plight of stunt people and women in particular in the industry.

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.

The result is an entertaining and intriguing work, with a rich history buoyed by thrilling on-set stories and a wide array of struggle and triumph.

Gregory's book is also being adapted into a documentary, which will be narrated by Michelle Rodriguez. 

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Sep 21, 2018

On Blu-ray: The Vibrant Casts of Home From the Hill (1960) and Never So Few (1959)

Sometimes, no matter what other elements are at play, the pure starpower of the actors onscreen dominate a film. The biggest draw of Never So Few (1959) and Home From the Hill (1960) is the unusual composition of their casts. Both have a fascinating, somewhat off-kilter mix of old and new Hollywood. They are also each dominated by by men, Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum respectively, who are driven by their own passions, with little regard for the rules. I recently watched both on new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive.

Never So Few could be half as good and still intrigue, because the cast is an astonishing mix of talent. Frank Sinatra plays a World War II army captain fighting the Japanese in Burma. Among his men: Charles Bronson, Richard Johnson, Dean Jones, and Steve McQueen. Add to this crazy mix of talent love interest Gina Lollobrigida (in her first Hollywood film), Paul Henreid, Peter Lawford and, briefly, Brian Donlevy. Though less famous to US audiences, Philip Ahn is also quietly commanding as the local Kachin people’s leader and Sinatra’s strongest ally. It took me a while to get into the action, because it seemed like everywhere you looked, another great actor popped up.

The action alternates between Japanese ambushes and plush party and nightclub scenes, never going too deep into either, with the tense battle scenes having the most excitement. Lollobrigida and Sinatra have a romance, but it doesn’t sizzle, and is even a bit indifferent. While he brings a great weary spirit of rebellion to the role, it was hard for me to accept the slender, almost frail crooner as a tough army captain. Interactions between the men are more lively, with Bronson settling more firmly into his tough guy persona and Jones seeming to relish a quirkier, darker role than he would have in the Disney flicks that brought him fame. Henreid and Donlevy add old Hollywood dignity in a great contrast to all that youthful energy.

The hottest element of Never So Few is McQueen, who is clearly ready for stardom. He gets the chance to show off his action chops and foreshadow all those great motorcycle and car chases with a little racy driving in his Army Jeep. Apparently Sinatra was impressed by the young actor and asked director John Sturges to give him good angles and exposure.

Home From the Hill is a more melodramatic production, though it has plenty of battle scenes of a different nature and even some shocking moments of violence. Robert Mitchum stars as a randy small town Texan who must be crazy because he constantly cheats on lovely Eleanor Parker, who plays his wife. While dodging the bullets and barbs of angry husbands, he despairs over his hapless son (George Hamilton) and grudgingly accepts the stronger bond he has with another, illegitimate son (George Peppard).

This is one of those small town dramas where polite society exists on a tightrope and everyone is on the verge of exploding from repressed anger or passion, and sometimes both. At 150 minutes, it takes longer than it needs to to make its point, but it keeps a good pace. While the subject matter is sensational, it never drifts into camp as this kind of story can. Amidst all the sex, violence, adultery and illegitimate pregnancy, there’s a tragic story and the gravity of that tale is given its due respect.

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

Sep 19, 2018

Streaming Diary: 7 Films to Watch on FilmStruck

There’s a darn good reason why so many classic film fans are raving about FilmStruck. I’ve never had so much fun working my way through the offerings of a streaming service. Curation is the key here. Everything is carefully selected, with a balance between artistic statement and pure sensation. Meaning: there’s always something I want to watch because the selection covers so many genres, styles and moods.

That said, the number of films available can be a bit daunting. What to watch? Here are some of my favorites:

Penelope (1966)

Everybody is in love with Natalie Wood in this comedy caper. She plays a bored banker’s wife who robs his new bank in disguise to make up for the lack of attention from her career-obsessed spouse (Ian Bannen). It’s a playful take on a lady with an odd neurosis: she steals without guilt and it is her most profound joy. Her love-stricken therapist (a rare juicy screen role for Dick Shawn) is in dismay that the woman of his dreams is so happily devious. As a detective on the case, Peter Falk hesitates to do his job because he is so charmed by this clever criminal. Depravity is always best played with a smile.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Before there were multiple versions of A Star as Born and the films it inspired, Constance Bennett played a waitress who was lifted to stardom in much the same way Esther Blodgett and her other cinematic sisters would be. This time the mentor (Lowell Sherman) is a friend, rather than a lover, but the relationship is just as moving. The story glides along with that perfect pre-code efficiency that would fade away in the decades to come. It is never pulled under by its melodramatic elements and plays with visuals in a then innovative and artistically appealing way.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The perfectly executed dialogue in this lively adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s stage play about deception and romance is as butter smooth as leading lady Joan Greenwood’s sexy purr. Every line is a dry-witted zinger. The posh setting of the elite is like a playground for its well-tuned cast of players, which also includes Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, and the haughtily perfect Margaret Rutherford. For all its pretty costumes and classy milieu, it is ridiculously sexy, which accounts as much for how entertaining it is as much the witty barbs.

Petulia (1968)

This drama of a battered society wife who finds solace with a kind doctor is heartbreaking, but also filled with the purest love. That’s why I have subjected myself to its trauma so many times. Julie Christie has made a career of devastating her audience, and here she is at her most endearing and tragic. It’s unsettling to see the volatile George C. Scott in the role of a gentle savior, but that complexity is what makes his performance fascinating. Richard Chamberlin and Joseph Cotten are effectively horrifying as they demonstrate the entitlement and uncontrollable fury of abusive men. This isn’t an easy watch, but it is essential.

The Wicked Lady (1945)

I enjoy Margaret Lockwood as a heroine, but that precisely pointed nose and cloud of dark hair, punctuated by a perfectly situated beauty mark, are best suited to villainy. Here she embraces her femme fatale side, stealing a husband, then some jewels, committing a little murder, and enchanting fellow thief James Mason in the process. You know she’s evil, but the people she scams are so dull and self-righteous you can’t help cheering her rebellion.

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong plays a scrappy night club dancer in this silent that showcases the eternally cool actress the way she should have been presented in Hollywood. While Wong was capable of playing vulnerable, she was at her best as she is here: bold, clever, and unapologetically ambitious. She’s also glam in a metallic Chinese costume, dancing in the light of four pre-disco disco balls.

Evergreen (1934)

The perfect antidote to a bleak mood. Jessie Matthews demonstrates just why she was the golden gal of classic British musicals. If Fred Astaire wanted to work with her, you know she had to be great. Here she plays an Edwardian era musical hall singer, in an adaption of a role she played on the stage. With a uniquely bright-eyed appeal, she’s a star, but also endearingly humble. A surreal and wonderfully bizarre futuristic number gives all that sunshine a Busby Berkeley-style edge. She’s even better in First A Girl (1935), which is well worth tracking down.

Sep 14, 2018

On Blu-ray: Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway in Supergirl (1984)

The 1984 production of Supergirl has always felt like a missed opportunity to me. It has its moments, but suffers from a weak script and story. However, though it was a box office and critical bomb upon its release, it will nevertheless forever be a showcase for Helen Slater’s charming first screen performance. It also benefits from a small, but intriguing turn by Peter O’Toole and the scenery-chomping theatrics of Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, and the slightly more understated Brenda Vaccaro. I recently had a chance to revisit the movie on the newly released, feature-packed Blu-ray from Warner Archive which includes the original theatrical release and the director’s cut of the film.

Supergirl begins in Argo City, the refuge of those who survived the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. There Kyra (Slater) lives with her parents Zor-El (Simon Ward) and Alura (Mia Farrow). She is fascinated by the magical work of the scientist Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) which gets her in trouble when she launches herself into space via one of his creations. This is how she ends up on Earth, living incognito as boarding school student Linda Lee.

It doesn’t take long for power-mad sorceress Selena (Dunaway) to discover her presence. With the help of her evil sidekicks Nigel (Cook) and Bianca (Vaccaro), she is relentless in her quest to exploit Kara’s power so that she may rule the world.

In her screen debut, Slater showed promise that she has never entirely had the chance to fulfill. Upon its release, some critics found her performance bland, but I enjoyed her understated, humble approach to the role. Slater's inexperience lends her an appealing freshness. 

The pure joy of the scene where Kara/Supergirl discovers she can fly feels more potent because she really is a young performer experiencing a new kind of power. She approaches that moment with a quiet wonder not commonly found in a comic book flick. There’s a serenity to her that makes you lean in, as if to take in the magic she is experiencing.

The love interest is played by Hart Bochner, a dim-witted doofus so charisma deficient that it never makes sense that Linda/Kara would fight for him. Her friendship with O’Toole is more intriguing. In their brief scenes together, they take the action to a different emotional level, where a great actor seems to be recognizing a genuine emerging talent and taking her under his wing.

Supergirl suffers the most from its rambling script and essentially aimless plot. There’s never a sense of real peril, just a bit of toe tapping until you get to the next special effects scene. Those effects, while sometimes showing their age, are generally visually exciting and sometimes surreally beautiful. Dunaway, Cook and Vaccaro also draw some campy fun out of their villain roles. In the end though, it never becomes a cohesive whole.

This was the rare occasion where I was much more inspired by the disc’s special features than the film. I was mesmerized by the vintage documentary The Making of Supergirl, which featured the most pleasantly entertaining behind-the-scenes footage I’ve ever seen. This is mostly due to Slater, who is humble, clever, and game for anything her once-in-a-lifetime role. You can see why the filmmakers cast her and how hopeful they must have been that she would headline a new, successful franchise.

In addition to a rare director’s cut of the film, features on the two-disc set includes commentary by director Jeannott Szwarc and special project consultant Scott Michael Bosco and a theatrical trailer.

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

Sep 12, 2018

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 More Great Episodes

I'm back with 6 more great podcast episodes for classic film fans! I was delighted to find a few new-to-me shows, in addition to enjoying more fascinating material from my favorites:

Talking Um...Uh... Jimmy Stewart
Episode 9
Kim Novak, ‘Vertigo’ (1958), ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ (1958)

The Jimmy Stewart Museum in the actor's hometown of Indiana, PA has a lovely podcast, hosted by Tim Vanderburg. All of the episodes are worth a listen, as there are great guests, including former co-stars, family, and one of his biographers, and other archival treats like a series of rare interviews with Stewart. I was most touched by this interview with Kim Novak though, where she discusses her loving professional relationship with Stewart. I especially enjoyed the story about how they reunited to present at the Oscars one year and the actor picked her up like they were going to the prom, even presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.

Noir Talk
Episode 12
Film noir before it was famous with Foster Hirsch

It's hard for to imagine a world before film noir. The cinematic style is so popular and such an integral part of movie making. Everything has to start somewhere though, and here author Foster Hirsch discusses his book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (1981) one of the first to be published about noir and how it wasn't an easy sell for publishers at first. In addition to describing his own journey with noir, Hirsch shares an interesting history of the form.

The Nod
March 5, 2018
Josephine and The Amazing Technicolor Rainbow Tribe

The Nod is one of my favorite cultural podcasts. Hosts Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings are brilliant at tackling complex subjects with compassion and good humor. While they often focus on current issues in black life, there is also a deep historical element to the podcast. I was delighted to hear their telling of the story of actress/singer Josephine Baker and the multi-cultural crew of children she adopted, because it was new to both of them, so they share a sense of wonder and disbelief in the telling. They interview one of Baker's children and explore the meaning and impact of her so-called "Rainbow Tribe" in a compelling way.

The Movies That Made Me
August 21, 2018 Allison Anders 
July 30, 2018 Illeana Douglas

This is the new official podcast for Trailers From Hell. It launched over the summer and it is already one of my favorites. Host Josh Olson and occasional co-host Joe Dante are so knowledgeable and they pick fascinating guests. I loved their wide-ranging conversation with director Allison Anders, which features a great discussion about two directors she admires: Ida Lupino and Anthony Mann. 

Make the Illeana Douglas episode your next stop: her list of top film picks is full of unusual, intriguing titles and they have a hilarious discussion about off-kilter DVD commentaries.

The Noir Factory
Case 20
Ida Lupino: Hollywood Legend

Steven Gomez's Noir Factory is a "fictional detective agency," with every episode a new "case" in the world of film noir. This episode is a great introduction to actress/director Ida Lupino. Gomez has a wonderfully personable podcasting style; as a longtime Ida fan there wasn't much that was new to me here, but it was such a pleasant listen.

For more great film podcasts, check out my previous posts:
Part One, Part Two

Sep 10, 2018

Top 30 Classic Movie Blogs on Feedspot

I just learned this morning that Feedspot has compiled a Top 30 list of classic movie sites. I'm honored to be included, because I am in great company. If you are looking for other places to indulge in your classic movie love, this is the perfect way to find a new favorite. There's a lot of knowledge, passion and fine writing to be found on this list.

It's encouraging to see there is appreciation out there for classic films and those who keep their legacy alive.

A Classic Movie Blog: Now on Instagram!

I invite you all to follow the new Instagram account for A Classic Movie Blog:


In addition to being a great way to keep tabs on the site, this is the spot for gorgeous classic film-related photos and other bits of fun. So far I've had a blast sharing these amazing images. Come join me!

Sep 7, 2018

On DVD: Pier Angeli in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951)

Though she never emerged as a major star, the Italian-born Pier Angeli made a mark on Hollywood with a persona that combined serene self-assurance and melancholy. Here in her Hollywood debut, she plays the titular role of Teresa (1951), a post-WWII drama about Philip (John Ericson), a baby-faced soldier who courts and marries the young Italian, who then comes to America with him after the war. While the story is for the most part about his struggles during and after his military service, the ads for the film feature Angeli, and for good reason. She is the heart and blazing star of this intimate production now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Teresa begins in the midst of World War II, where Philip is so overwhelmed by fear that he cannot fulfill his duties as a soldier. He is mentored by the more seasoned Sergeant Dobbs, played by Ralph Meeker with more depth than his lines offer on the page. He makes you want to ditch Philip and see what untold tales linger behind those knowing eyes.

Philip meets Teresa, a tender-hearted local villager, and quickly charms her and her family. They are married after the war and following a brief separation, are reunited in America. There they find new worries as Philip’s mother (Patricia Collinge) cannot endure her baby boy marrying, and a foreigner no less. She tortures Teresa with criticism while her weary husband (Richard Bishop) and friendly daughter (Peggy Ann Garner) run interference as best they can.

The screenplay is by Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern, and much like in that film, the characters here are approached with sympathy and acceptance for their flaws. Their weaknesses are made clear, but so is their loneliness and vulnerability.

Collinge is a monstrous mother. It’s clear that her smothering is the root of Philip’s troubles and yet Stern takes you into her broken heart. She has destroyed her family, but not out of malice. Her fears have taken over and she is as much a victim as anyone.

Teresa was John Ericson’s first film for MGM. It is one of a handful of features he would make for the studio before decamping to television for the bulk of his career. He manages to draw some gentle appeal out of an often aggravating character, though you do sometimes wonder if Teresa made the right decision.

It is Angeli who brings life to Teresa though. Still a teenager, she has the emotional grounding and fresh-faced allure that Ingrid Bergman exuded in her early films. In direct contrast to Philip, her Teresa is wise beyond her years, innocent, but aware enough that leering soldiers are to be avoided and that her overprotective brother need not worry so much about her. Unlike Philip, her mother has allowed her to mature and the war has taken care of the rest. 

It’s a performance that should have led to a bigger career. Watching Angeli glow her way through the simplest of scenes inspires longing for more of her magic. It is a bittersweet taste of what could have been.

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.