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.

Nov 11, 2018

Quote: Orson Welles on Being a Filmmaker

My definition of a filmmaker is a man who presides over accidents.

-Orson Welles

Quote Source

Nov 9, 2018

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: 6 Great Episodes

Just when I think I’ve found every podcast worthy of a classic film fan’s attention, another batch of interesting choices comes across my radar. I’ve got some great finds this time around, in addition to some old favorites. The biggest heartbreak: the wonderful episode of FilmStruck podcast that I just enjoyed will be the last, as the streaming service it promotes will end November 29. However, knowing Alicia Malone, she will find another way to keep her valuable voice in that arena.

On to my latest picks. Show titles link to the episode:

The Made for TV Mayhem Show
Episode 5

November 21, 2015
Bad Ronald and Through Naked Eyes

One of my favorite podcast finds of the month is Amanda Reyes, television movie expert and host of The Made for TV Mayhem show. Reyes combines geekdom and scholarship in her always thought-provoking podcast which celebrates a wide array of flicks made for television. I started with her Bad Ronald podcast from a few years back because I found her via a promotional podcast for the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the film.

Warner Archive
October 18, 2018

Bad Ronald Talk with Amanda Reyes of Made for TV Mayhem

This is the podcast which introduced me to Amanda Reyes. In addition to discussing Bad Ronald, she shares lots of interesting insight about TV movies. I love the way she puts the audience for these films in perspective by describing viewing statistics and the options available for home viewers at the time.

Criterion Now
Episode 71
October 26, 2018
RIP FilmStruck

Not many people in my daily life were as gutted as I was when it was announced that the suits at AT&T had pulled the plug on FilmStruck. I found solace online, where there were hundreds of fans as saddened by the loss of this amazing source of cinema as I was. This episode is essentially a reaction to the news and an analysis of what it all means. It was helpful to me as a way to process the loss of a valuable service that brought so much joy to my movie-watching life.

Episode 27

Producer Frank Marshall discusses The Other Side of the Wind

One of the saddest things about losing the FilmStruck service is that it means the cancellation of Alicia Malone’s addictive podcast. She is such an effective interviewer, always drawing out profound observations from her guests, who often seem thrilled to be discussing their material at the deep intellectual and emotional level that she encourages. In her final episode, she discusses The Other Side of the Wind with Frank Marshall, who was invited to work on the production by Peter Bogdanovich. As many of the people who were involved with the movie have died in the years since it was filmed, any firsthand anecdotes about its making are invaluable and Marshall is a great storyteller. If the show has to end, this was a great way to go out.

Fiat Vox/ Berkeley News Podcast
Episode 43
“White voice” and hearing whiteness as difference, not the standard

This episode of the promotional podcast which highlights University of Berkeley programs is a brisk, but often thought provoking five minutes. It explores the Mid-Atlantic accent, a British-flavored way of speaking that was once popular with broadcasters and performers, and how it made a non-regionalized, “white” form of speech the norm.

Switchblade Sisters
August 30, 2018
The Night of the Hunter with Night Comes On Director Jordana Spiro

Film critic April Wolfe has found the perfect combination for a podcast: genre films and lady filmmakers. Each episode is a discussion of a film chosen by the guest. She's spoken to an amazing array of directors, including Anna Biller, Karen Kusama, and Martha Coolidge. The combination of film history knowledge these women possess and their enthusiastic fandom make for fascinating discussions. I’ve loved every episode so far; they’re as varied as the guests and all worth a listen. I suggest starting with the Night of the Hunter ep with Jordana Spiro because it was the first one I tried and it got me excited to listen to the rest.

Nov 7, 2018

On DVD: Eleanor Parker in The Last Ride (1944)

Briskly-paced and clocking in at just under an hour The Last Ride (1944) is a moderately entertaining wartime crime programmer. While chiefly of historical interest, it has a little more zing than other flicks of its kind. The film recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive.

Though Eleanor Parker’s image dominates the promotional art, and she is the most lively presence in the film, she is a supporting character in this cops and mobsters drama about the wartime tire bootlegging racket. Richard Harris is Lieutenant Pat Harrigan, an ambitious detective who sets his sights on a gang that sells subpar tires to drivers hit hard by wartime rationing of rubber. His work is complicated by the fact that his brother Mike (Charles Lang) is involved with the criminals, not to mention that they’re both sweet on their foster sister Kitty Kelly (Parker).

What follows is a familiar parade of mob hits, double crosses, and fist fights. With little to distinguish it, it’s oddly more entertaining than you’d expect. This is partly due to the youthful energy of the opening scenes, which crackle with an easy verve missing from the rest of the film. The brief scenes with the charismatic Parker are also especially pleasant; she’s already clearly ready to leave behind girlfriend roles and embrace stardom.

Aside from these enjoyable elements though, there’s a reassuring efficiency to The Last Ride. It can get silly: an earnest conversation about wartime rubber rationing comes off as cheesy and obvious and brings the action to a stop. For the most part though, its footing is sure. This is a strong programmer. It isn’t a must-see, but it delivers on its modest aims.

The disc has no special features.

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.

Nov 4, 2018

Quote of the Week: Frank Capra on Drama

I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

– Frank Capra

Nov 1, 2018

On Blu-ray: TV Horror Classic Bad Ronald (1974)

For years, being a fan of television movies has meant squinting at faded VHS prints or watching whatever somewhat viewable titles I could find streaming online. I’ve just come to expect that as part of the experience. That’s why one of the most mind-blowing aspects of watching the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of television horror classic Bad Ronald (1974) is simply that it looks sharp, clean, and vivid, in addition to sounding great.

Of course there is more to Bad Ronald than looks. It’s a profoundly creepy film, presented with a sort of cold-hearted efficiency that makes it all the more chilling. It’s hard to believe that this twisted flick was broadcast on prime time television, let alone to the millions of viewers that the Movie of the Week could attract in those days of more limited viewing options.

The titular Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is a misfit teen who lives alone with his over-protective mother (Kim Hunter). When his parents divorced, his father agreed to relinquish all parenting rights to his son in exchange for avoiding child support payments. Without other friends or family, it is these two against the world.

After being rejected and humiliated by the girl he wants to date, Ronald is mocked by her little sister. In the resulting argument, he accidentally kills her. Instead of going to the police, he buries her in a shallow grave. Aware of how poorly Ronald has handled the situation and terrified of losing her son, Mama Jacoby devises a plan to wall up Ronald in the spare bathroom, where he can hide until the heat dies down and they can skip town.

For a while it seems like they will get away with it, but then Mrs. Jacoby dies during gall bladder removal surgery. A new family, with three teenage daughters, moves into the house. Ronald watches them through a hole in the wall, while becoming increasingly unhinged as he pursues his interest in painting to create his own fantasy world in captivity.

One of the most effective things about Bad Ronald is the way it weaves realism into its outrageous premise. It’s hard to believe the family would never discover a teenage boy living in their walls, or even notice the eye-level holes surrounding them, but the way Ronald reacts to the situation rings true. His psychopathic tendencies bloom without social pressure to be otherwise. Unlike many films about captivity, he actually looks like he has been locked up with his paints and decaying trays of food. He’s dirty and greasy; you can almost smell him.

The family that inhabits Ronald’s home also feels real. They’re a group of people too occupied with their busy lives to truly see each other, but still functional and loving. The fights between the sisters are especially authentic, full of screeching and frustration, but always with an underlying feeling of love and belief in each other. Watching these essentially decent people strive for happiness makes the horror within their own walls that much more terrifying.

Ronald is pure horror, but if you read any viewer comments about the film, it’s clear that he is also in some ways relatable. As he sits on the couch nibbling an apple from the side of his mouth like a pensive rat, he inspires both revulsion and sympathy. Everyone has had a social outcast in their lives who fails despite all efforts to fit in. Many of us are that outcast. Just about everyone has had an idea, if even briefly, of how it feels to not fit in. We cringe when Ronald terrorizes a teenage girl or misreads social cues, and we know he must face punishment for his more serious actions, and yet we also understand and feel for him.

Bad Ronald
is a suspenseful, often scary film that works well within the limitations of television horror.

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