Dec 31, 2019

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up

For the first time in a while, every podcast in my picks was new to me. This month I was fascinated by a pair of shows featuring old time radio and two discussions about the new Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name (2019). If you have a show to share, even your own, please let me know about it in the comments! Episode titles link to the show:

Stars on Suspense (Old Time Radio)
Cary Grant (Part 3)
June 20, 2019

This excellent podcast featuring classic dramatic radio broadcasts of the Suspense program is my new obsession. Each episode spotlights a film star and a pair of radio dramas in which they performed. While there are lots of ways to access this kind of material, I appreciate the way it is presented here, with a little background into the star’s association with the material, different radio broadcasts of the material, and other interesting tidbits. This is entire podcast is binge-worthy, but I can recommend starting as I did with the episode featuring Cary Grant in a suspenseful adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain and a radio version of his film performance in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Down These Mean Streets
Triple Bogie (Bold Venture)
December 7, 2019

Produced by the same host as Stars on Suspense, Down These Mean Streets is the same format, but with a focus on detective programs. I loved this trio of shows featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This pair sizzled just as much on radio as they did in the movies.

KPBS: Cinema Junkie
Dolemite, Eddie Murphy, and Rudy Ray Moore
October 11, 2019

This episode is a great primer for those who enjoyed Dolemite is My Name (2019) but know little about its multi-talented subject Rudy Ray Moore. Host Beth Accomando talks with comic book writer David Walker and filmmakers Sanns Dixon and Dante Moran about the film, Moore, and Murphy. They offer great context and background on Moore’s films and legacy, in addition to Murphy’s work and how this film fits into his varied career.

The Treatment
Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski: Dolemite is My Name
October 11, 2019

As a follow-up to the Cinema Junkie episode, this conversation between host Elvis Mitchell and Dolemite is My Name (2019) screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski is a great history of the production. Eddie Murphy approached Alexander and Karazewski to take on the project because of their history of making biopics of unusual subjects (Ed Wood [1994], Big Eyes [2014]). It was interesting to get the full story on the production, which was in the works for over a decade; so long in fact that Rudy Ray Moore (who died in 2008) was still alive, and pleased to hear he was getting a tribute, when they first discussed making the film.

Dec 26, 2019

Book Review--Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom

Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom
Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Lies Lanckman, eds.
University of Iowa Press, 2019

Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom is a collection of essays that takes a serious-minded look at what is often seen as the frivolous topic of movie magazines. The twelve pieces gathered here find the substance in these periodicals, from the fans that populate Letters to the Editor sections to the stars that are the subjects of their pages. It is an academic take on the subject, and thus not a light read, but it is a fascinating exploration of many aspects of these once hugely popular magazines.

I was most fascinated by book co-editor Lies Lanckman’s essay, In Search of Lost Fans: Recovering Lost Fan Magazine Readers, 1910-1950, in which she dives into the data behind fan magazine letters sections. Since many of these magazines took liberties with the truth when it came to writing about the lives of the stars, it is reasonable to think that some or possibly even all of these letter writers could have been creations of the editors. Lanckman tracks down several of these letter writers via census records, both determining that these contributors were in fact real and also finding a lot of interesting information about what kind of people wrote to fan magazines.

While Hollywood film magazines get the bulk of the attention, there are also pieces covering periodicals about Malay, French, and Romanian cinema, not to mention an exploration of the public image of British star Ivor Novello (most famous for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger [1927]). There’s also a history of the long-running Elvis Presley movie fan mag. Elvis Monthly and a pair of intriguing pieces about the images of two of early Hollywood’s most powerful actresses, Mae West and Alla Nazimova.

With diverse subject matter and widely different approaches to each topic, Star Attractions is most rewarding taken a piece at a time. It is a varied, thoughtful approach to exploring a subject that seems light on the surface, but becomes more significant when you consider the influence these magazines had on their audience.

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

Dec 24, 2019

Deana Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 20, 2019

Book Review: The Retro Appeal of Merton of the Movies

Merton of the Movies
Harry Leon Wilson
LARB Classics, 2019 (originally published 1919)

It is the 100th anniversary of Merton of the Movies, a book that inspired three films (the 1947 version with Red Skelton is the best known), a play, and a musical, but which is for the most part forgotten today. While the book unsurprisingly has some elements that would be found insensitive in the current social climate, it is for the most part still an entertaining read with timelessly relatable sentiment. Disillusionment with the Hollywood dream factory was built in to the industry from the beginning and while this is a comic novel, there’s an edge to the laughs.

The story follows Merton Gill, a self-serious, small-town rube who goes to Hollywood after completing acting correspondence school. It doesn’t take long for Gill to find work as a prominently-placed extra, but jobs are not plentiful, and he soon finds himself struggling to survive. With the intervention of his friend, the stuntwoman Flips Montague, he gets back on his feet and in front of the camera.

However, being a leading man is not what Gill expected. His director and Montague play a dirty trick on him in the name of show business that leaves him baffled and hurt by the illusions of Hollywood. Maybe he isn’t starving anymore, but he’s lost his bearings.

Merton is a naïve man, which makes him funny to many, and the tragedy is that he cannot see why he would be laughable. In his fight for dignity, he struggles to understand a wiseacre world which he is unable to view with anything but complete earnestness. You smile at his profoundly literal perspective, but cringe for the day when he realizes how much he has misunderstood.

The action takes a while to get rolling, but once Merton gets to Hollywood the story hits its stride. It was fun to get a contemporary perspective on the early film industry, which did not take long to establish some of its best and worst traits. For all his superficial simplicity, Gill is a complex character, inspiring laughs, scorn, and admiration in equal parts. Given its general lightness of tone, it’s surprising how deep it goes.

Many thanks to LARB Classics for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 17, 2019

Favorite Film Books of 2019

There was an especially rich array of classic film books published in 2019. From great revivals to revealing memoirs, I learned so much and marveled at the grace of these varied tomes. These are the titles that stuck with me the most this year:

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
Victoria Riskin

In the first part of the book, Riskin alternates telling the individual stories of her parents’ story chapter-by-chapter. Then she slowly brings them together in her narrative. When Riskin and Wray finally connect, it is so joyful that it’s almost unbearable to see them parted again due to an illness that took Riskin too soon, but Victoria always finds the healing love at the core of the loss she and her family endured...

...I thought [Fay] Wray’s [memoir] was all I needed to hear of her story, but in telling her parents’ story, Riskin expands the narrative in a way that fully reveals the strength of both of these remarkable talents. It’s also so well written that I was sad to reach the final pages.

Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies
Mark Vieira

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Robert Matzen

While it is well known among classic film fans that Audrey Hepburn endured many hardships during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, there has been little firm detail about what the actress went through. The only certainty: the troubles she endured colored the rest of her life and affected everything from the way she ate and lived to the work she did...

...The story that follows is brutal and not for more sensitive tastes, but it is an important document of civilian life in war. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the story is that the middle class Van Heemstra’s made out relatively well: losing some family, but never starving or suffering assault from German soldiers, and still suffered the fallout from those times for the rest of their lives. It makes you realize how unbearably horrifying it must have been for those with fewer resources.

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young

Young explores the often deeply intertwined personal and professional aspects of Brown’s life with a steady eye, noting the many contradictions he embodied. Especially compelling is her account of the production of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a profound rebuke against racism which the director made to address the ghosts from his own southern past. While he showed social consciousness in pursuing the project, he insisted that a young black actor play like a “coon” in a graveyard scene, rolling his eyes in fear while the white actors remained calm.

In addition to the satisfying examination of Brown as a man, the book is also full of the reflected glory of his association with the most glittering of the MGM stars. He is famous for being Garbo’s frequent collaborator, but worked just as much with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He nurtured the youthful talents of Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Butch Jenkins and Claude Jarman Jr. and adeptly managed big personalities like Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy. As a result, there are lots of entertaining on-set stories here.

I Lost My Girlish Laughter Jane Allen with Jane Shore

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood...

...While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste

Van Neste has thoroughly researched his subjects, in addition to interviewing several of them, sometimes being the last person to speak to them before their passing. In digging deep into the details of these actor’s lives and capturing their memories so late in their lives, he has preserved a considerable and invaluable piece of film history. In telling their stories, he strikes a good balance between celebrating their triumphs and lamenting what could have been.

For more reading suggestions, take a look at my favorites lists from previous years: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014

Dec 13, 2019

Book Review--They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars

They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste
Bear Manor, 2019

I have come to deeply appreciate the efforts of author and film historian Dan Van Neste to preserve and promote classic Hollywood stars who are lesser known, but worthy of greater attention. His 2017 biography of frequent screen villain Ricardo Cortez was an effective exploration of an actor long overdue for a full career review. Now, with They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars, Van Neste spotlights several stars deserving of more acclaim in a collection of essays previously published in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images.

They Coulda Been Contenders is a tribute to the kind of contract player who worked steadily during the studio age and found a certain level of fame, but never reached the top rungs of stardom, despite deserving that status. It is likely that many performers featured here will be familiar to the typical TCM-watching film fanatic. I even count actors profiled here like Claire Dodd, John Hodiak, Marian Marsh, and Karen Morely among my favorite stars. However, they are not the kind of people who get full-scale biographies written about them.

Van Neste has thoroughly researched his subjects, in addition to interviewing several of them, sometimes being the last person to speak to them before their passing. In digging deep into the details of these actor’s lives and capturing their memories so late in their lives, he has preserved a considerable and invaluable piece of film history. In telling their stories, he strikes a good balance between celebrating their triumphs and lamenting what could have been.

This is a great introduction to lesser known stars for those new to classic films and a satisfying trove of information for fans of the actors profiled. It’s an addictive, informative read, related in a friendly, accessible voice.

Many thanks to Bear Manor for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 10, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Olive Signature Edition of The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

I don’t know how I got decades into classic film fandom without seeing The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Yes, I thought it seemed like it could be excessively sentimental or cutesy (two things which happen to not be true), but I also love Ingrid Bergman in anything and Bing Crosby has grown on me over the years. Fortunately, with the release of its new Signature Edition Blu-ray/DVD of the film Olive Films has helped me to fill this gap in my cinematic experience and opened my eyes to a deeply moving film.

There’s a timeless message in The Bells of St. Mary’s about greed, loyalty, and the necessity of standing firm in the face of hard truths. It has its frustrating moments, where a simple word of clarification could have saved great suffering, but has clearly been withheld in the interest of creating drama, but for the most part this is a pure work of great wisdom. Much of its success has to do with the brilliance of Ingrid Bergman, who manages to rip her audience to emotional shreds within the perfect frame of her nun’s wimple, but there is also the always-underrated Bing Crosby, whose persona has always been more appreciated than his impeccable control of each screen performance.

Bergman is Sister Benedict, the head of the struggling St. Mary’s school and Crosby reprises his role from Going My Way (1945) as Father O’Malley, the new priest at the school. The sisters of St. Mary’s are of good humor, they collapse into giggles at the sight of a mischievous kitten tangling with a hat, but they are also as brave, skilled, and determined as the most successful corporate salesperson. When the school is too low on funds to make crucial repairs to the building, it seems inevitable that they will sell the property to the aggressive owner (Henry Travers) of the new high rise next door.

This is a world where a higher power triumphs though, and while the outcome of the nun’s dilemma may strain credulity, it is pleasing in the just world it envisions. Director Leo McCarey shows love for all his characters, even those of questionable morals or deeds. He portrays each of them with the same caring touch and a sort of hope for finding gems in the grime of life, however thick it may be.

The picture on the Olive disc, which is a mastered from a 4K restoration, is clean and clear, with enough grain to give it the look of film. Special features include an audio commentary by Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, the featurette Human Nature with insight from Steve Massa, the immensely entertaining Sr. Rose Pacatte discussing Faith and Film (TCM fans may recall seeing her as a guest on the channel), Before Sequel-itis with Professor Emily Corman, Screen Guild Theater radio adaptations of the story, and an essay about the film by cultural critic Abbey Bender. It’s a deeply satisfying set, on a par with the best of the Olive Signature Editions.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a Blu-ray of the film for review.

Dec 5, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Restoration of A Gem, Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1950) with Simone Simon

Olivia (1950) (also known as The Pit of Loneliness) is a treasure that came out of nowhere for me. Set in a nineteenth-century French boarding school, much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), it reveals a battleground in the most elegant of settings. A landmark in queer cinema and a triumph for Jacqueline Audry as a rare female director at the time, it is also simply an engaging and beautifully crafted film. I recently had the opportunity to watch a new release of the film on DVD from Icarus Films.

As the titular heroine, Marie-Claire Olivia plays an English schoolgirl who is transferred to a French boarding school in the hopes it will be a happier place for her than the institute she previously attended in her homeland. At first, she is delighted with her new surroundings. She revels in the kindness of her fellow students and the relative freedom of more relaxed rules.

However, she is soon overcome by the continual battle between headmistresses Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon) for the affections of the students and her own passionate crush on Julie. Miss Cara is sickly, or so she claims, and self-pitying, coaxing the students to pamper her and bristling when she doesn’t rule their hearts. Miss Julie is more self-assured when it comes to winning the affections of the students, though she is no more confident or content with herself as she cruelly plays with their affections, drawing them in only to push them away when her desires conflict with propriety.

Both the head mistresses and the students are frank in the sensuality of their affections. Their intimacy as they clutch hands, sit closely in conversation, or cozily feed each other pralines is acceptable by the standards of their world. That closeness is meant to be temporary as they prepare themselves to be the wives of important men. When Olivia struggles to keep that perspective, Julie fails to set her straight, perhaps because she doesn’t want that conventional life for herself. As a result, their tense relationship further feeds the flames of competition between Julie and Cara.

The students live in a lush world of luxury, where they are well fed, swathed in fluttering lace, and occupied daily with light gossip about each other and, most of all, their two head mistresses. Not far beneath this façade of beauty and gentility there is the constant pressure of the conflict between Miss Cara and Miss Julie. In their fight for the girl’s affections, they end up punishing these innocents for their own dissatisfaction and repressed desires. The teachers and house staff observe this drama with a knowing eye, declining to step in. They are aware of their place and possibly not terribly concerned about their wealthy charges.

Jacqueline Audry was the first female director to distinguish herself to a wide audience in the post-World War II era. With Gigi (1949), she made her name by being the first to adapt Colette’s work to the screen, a task which the author had previously believed impossible, though she was delighted to be wrong. With that film she also made a star of Danièle Delorme, who played the title role.

Audry made Olivia early in her twenty year directing career, but she already possessed a sophisticated visual style. She situates her camera so that the audience always has a direct path to the feelings of her actresses. The dialogue is frank, but it is the silent emotions that Audry captures which reveal the instability of the residents of this candy-coated world.

Bonus features on the disc include 1950 and 2019 trailers for the films and a fascinating 1957 interview with Audry conducted by actor Jean Danet, whom she directed in La Garçonne (1957).

Many thanks to Icarus Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 3, 2019

On DVD/Blu-Ray: Ann Dvorak Steals the Show in Out of the Blue (1947)

Director Leigh Jason’s Out of the Blue (1947) aims for screwball comedy, but doesn’t have the pace or cast to fit the bill. Instead, it is an offbeat ensemble piece with a few plot points that haven’t aged well and a supremely silly performance by Ann Dvorak.

Based on Vera Caspary’s (Laura) novel of the same name, Out of the Blue unfolds in a busy Greenwich Village apartment building. The timid Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent) sends his overbearing wife (Carole Landis) off to visit her sister for the weekend. When he goes to a restaurant for dinner, he meets tipsy barfly Olive Jensen (Ann Dvorak), who invites herself back to his apartment, but only because she wants to relieve him of his brandy. When Jensen won’t leave, and exacerbates things by succumbing to an apparently regular fainting spell, Earthleigh thinks she is dead and leaves her on his artist neighbor David Gelleo’s (Turhan Bey) terrace. Arthur hopes to get rid of both his own problem and the artist, whose dog digs up his wife’s zinnias, but David and his new girlfriend Deborah Tyler (Virginia Mayo) are a step ahead of him and playfully thwart his plans. All the while meddling neighbors Miss Spring (Elizabeth Patterson) and Miss Ritchie (Julia Dean) clutch their pearls and call the police with regularity.

This farcical set-up with a decent running time of 86 has a surprisingly languid pace. It starts at a decent clip, but gradually loses momentum. That is due in part to Leigh’s direction, but it doesn’t help that the rigid Brent is clearly not suited to comedy. While Bey and Mayo are more assured, they are too easygoing for screwball action. It is Dvorak who crackles; so much so that when she is absent there is a profound effect on the pacing.

However, it’s worth it to settle into the bizarre world of this film. The enviably lavish apartments with their expansive terraces would never belong to characters of these means, but they are a joy to behold. It’s great to see Bey in a non-exotic role, and he is quite adorable romancing an equally appealing Mayo in his goofy artist’s shorts and socks with sandals. Dvorak is a lot, but she intends to be and it’s great to see her given the opportunity to sink her teeth into such a strange role. Her character and what she goes through will be unsettling to modern eyes; she clearly needs help with her alcoholism and no one seems terribly bothered whether she is dead or passed out, but that vibe somehow fits with the weirdness of the plot, however uneasily.

This unusual comedy should ultimately be rewarding to fans of the stars. It is an essentially pleasant oddity and on the whole an enjoyable watch.

Out of the Blue (1947) has now been released on DVD/Blu-ray by ClassicFlix. The film looks and sounds great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a collection of trailers for other ClassicFlix releases.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Nov 29, 2019

Holiday Gift Guide 2019: Great Pins for Classic Film Fans

For this year's gift guide, I am shining a spotlight on one of my favorite ways to show classic movie love: gorgeous pins. There are so many amazing designs available. Here are some of my favorites. Shop names link to each site:

That beautiful Diahann Carroll (RIP) pin above is from Noire Culture Love. Also available: stunning pins featuring legends like Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, and Dorothy Dandridge. If you love something here, best to grab it fast, designs can sell out.

I love the sepia tones of these adorable silent film star pins designed by Julia Hutchinson. In addition to this lovely Anna May Wong design, she sells pins of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, and more.

Kate Gabrielle is a friend, and I have long been in awe of her artwork. Her classic film-themed enamel pins and button sets are a frequent sight at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it is evident she has many fans. I own several of her pins; my favorite is the Trip to the Moon pin because it's got an image that's been on my site banner for years. I am thinking this romantic Ginger and Fred design needs to be the newest addition to my collection.

I love the detail on this Cary Grant pin by P&C Poolside. Look at that perfect chin cleft! There's lots more designs for classic film fans in this Etsy shop.

This is a great set of Universal Monster pins from Yesterdays. I love that it is in black and white. I'm also fond of their VHS and 3D glasses pins.

Another great set of Univeral monster pins from DKNG.

Look at the beautiful shading on this pin featuring Conrad Veidt as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from Atom Age Industries.

You could know nothing about Peter Sellers or his magnificent performance in Being There (1979) and still appreciate the beauty of this pin from Midnight Dogs.

If you're looking for more gift ideas, check out my guides from previous years: 2018, 2016

Nov 26, 2019

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: November Round-up

It's been another great month of podcasts for classic film fans. I love how there is always something new and fascinating to discover. As always, if you have a podcast to share, even your own, please share in the comments. All episode titles link to the episode:

You Won't Forget Me
Torch Song (1953)
August 9, 2019

Two episodes in and I'm already a fan of this podcast devoted to Joan Crawford. The first episode is a thoughtful and informative exploration of  Joan's career-reviving MGM return Torch Song (1953). I've often felt this film was unfairly categorized as camp and I appreciated host Gabriela's appreciation of Crawford's emotional bravery in this role. I also recommend the new episode about Possessed (1931) with guest Gwenda Young (Clarence Brown's biographer).

Slate Plus: Flashback
Gaslight (1944)
May 5, 2019

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens and Vanity Fair movie critic K. Austin Collins are the co-hosts of this podcast about classic film. A lot of the content is behind a paywall, but there is enough for free in the archives to give you a taste of the show and help you to decide whether it's worth the Slate Plus subscription. I started with the first episode and was not surprised to love it as Stevens and Collins are two of my favorite voices on Twitter. They have a thoughtful conversation about the 1944 version of Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer and directed by George Cukor. Both are good at breaking down the details of the film and getting to the essence of its terror.

WWII Service on Celluloid
The Bridge on the River Kwai

Episode 30

The official podcast of the National World War II Museum is an interesting exploration of fiction versus fact in movies about WWII. I especially liked this episode about The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), because I knew so little about the events that inspired the source novel and the film. There’s also a shorter mini-sode which offers a brief overview of the production, but the full discussion with a well-informed panel of WWII experts in the longer episode is fascinating and well worth the listen.

Ticklish Business
Wait Until Dark (1967) with Liz Shannon Miller
Episode 75

Host Kristen Lopez discusses Audrey Hepburn's most intense film with guest Liz Shannon Miller. This is the most thorough discussion I've heard about the way the film approaches disability. 
Very thought provoking.

You Must Remember This

Disney's Most Controversial Film (Six Degrees of Song of the South, Episode 1)
October 21, 2019

I'm sure no fan of podcasts and classic film needs an introduction to Karina Longworth's impeccably researched show. It was such a delight to be back in Longworth's orbit again with this premiere her third season. Her first episode of a season-wide arc exploring the legacy of Disney's notorious Song of the South (1946) is as fascinating and addictive as the best of her work. Especially important is her emphasis that films like these didn't become controversial over time; as with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), there are always voices of dissent.

Nov 21, 2019

On Blu-ray: Fritz Lang's Moonfleet (1955)

As a Joan Greenwood and George Sanders completest, Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) was a must-see for me. It doesn’t live up to the promise of its exciting cast though, which also includes Stewart Granger, Viveca Lindfors, and Melville Cooper. At best, it’s got its moments, and a cast like that can’t entirely disappoint. I recently watched the film on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Moonfleet is the name of a coastal English village. It is there that the recently-orphaned John Mohune is sent to find his mother’s former lover, Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). On her deathbed, she felt this was the best course of action. Fox disagrees, but his enduring passion for Mohune’s mother makes him reluctantly take responsibility for the boy.

Fox lives as a gentleman and smuggles on the down low, so he attempts to smuggle young Mohune off to boarding school to avoid being a bad influence. When this fails and the boy returns, he draws him into his quest to find a valuable diamond.

Many liberties were taken with the plot and characters of 1898 source novel by English author J. Meade Falkner, which hadn’t been published in the United States until 1951. With its tales of smugglers and the search for riches, it was meant to have the thrills of Treasure Island, but was thought to be too grim a story for a faithful translation to work on the screen.

Even with dramatic changes though, the story never quite takes off. There’s some intrigue to the mystery of the diamond and a great fight scene in a pub featuring Granger that brought back a bit of the thrill of his legendary sword work in Scaramouche (1952). The production essentially lacks energy though. It’s disappointing that Greenwood and Sanders, perfectly cast as corrupt noble folk, don’t have better lines to purr with their equally alluring voices.

This film was a must-watch for me because of my regard for the talent involved, but it is a lackluster production overall.

As a special feature, 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.

Nov 19, 2019

On Blu-ray: Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year (1982)

My Favorite Year (1982) is an invigorating period piece, with uniformly excellent production values, script, and cast, but it runs deep because of a remarkable performance by Peter O’Toole. Starring as Errol Flynn-like rogue Alan Swann, a movie star whose best days are behind him, he is charming, funny, and devastating. I recently revisited the film on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

What a remarkable directing debut this was for actor Richard Benjamin (Westworld, The Last of Sheila). To hear him talk about it in a commentary included in the disc’s special features, he succeeded by encouraging a positive environment on the set, giving everyone in the production the opportunity to contribute, and above all his intuitive and intelligent leading man. While he was too dedicated to his craft to be a complete rogue, there are definitely parallels between the lives of O’Toole and the charming drunk Swann.

Swann has been hired to make an appearance on a live fifties television comedy variety show. However, he doesn’t know that the production is live until he is just about to step in front of the cameras. Before that moment of terror, he is a handful for the staff of the show, getting blackout drunk, disappearing, stealing dames beneath the noses of their fellas, and inspiring scandalous headlines.

Despite the trouble he causes, Swann is effortlessly charming, and he knows it. He casts his spell on everyone, including the young gag writer (Mark Linn-Baker) who has been enlisted to babysit him.

Rather than emulating the times, My Favorite Year evokes the spirit of a bright, bubbly MGM musical from the fifties. However, its comic pace and tone are closer to screwball, complete with  characters who are simultaneously lovable and exasperating.

As Swann, O’Toole was supposed to be a ravaged man, and he does show the effects of living in a smoke-filled environment, drink in hand. He has too much spirit to truly be in the dumps though, which makes his ultimate triumph believable. With those alluring blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a swoon-worthy way of paying attention to a lady, his erotic power almost seems to have increased with time.

O’Toole knew how to play a charming man who could get away with anything until he suddenly can’t. His creative contributions to the film were to more deeply reflect the man behind his movie star persona. Here his fate is happier than that of the real Flynn and it is because he is able to find the courage to face his true self.

That journey is emotionally resonant, and the impact it has is surprising, because for the most part the film is a wild comic ride, with snappy dialogue, goofy slapstick, and a feeling that everything is out of control. The transition from wildness to a quieter redemption is remarkably smooth.

Benjamin has gathered a fascinating cast to support O’Toole. Baker reminded me a lot of Benjamin himself, which makes me wonder how much influence he had over the actor. As a fellow stage actor, he connected with O’Toole and that shows in the way their give and take is so effortless. Though she has essentially been cast as a love interest for Baker, Jessica Harper is too intelligent to fade into a girlfriend part; with her sense of curiosity and wonder, she is a sort of relatable surrogate for the audience.

The other supporting actors are a riot. Among the best of them, Lainie Kazan, Selma Diamond, and Cameron Mitchell so thoroughly own their roles they seem to have been written to their strengths. Apparently that was the case with the rough-talking Diamond; Benjamin couldn’t imagine anyone but her as a studio secretary and it shows.

This is such an uplifting film and it comes by its laughs and tears honestly. The idea of a broken man redeeming himself could easily get too sentimental, but with a little slapstick and a lot of emotional intelligence, Benjamin and O’Toole get to the heart of things without becoming sappy. Truly an under seen classic.

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

Nov 17, 2019

Quote: Robert Bresson on Cinema

Image Source

Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.

-Robert Bresson


Nov 14, 2019

Book Review: A Biography of the Woman Who Designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
Mallory O'Meara
Hanover Square Press, 2019

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, known as the Gill-man is one of the most beloved movie monsters, but few know that its design was created by a woman, artist Milicent Patrick. Film industry professional Mallory O’Meara found this unacceptable and set out to tell the story of this pioneering woman in creature design. Her book The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is a fascinating combination of biography and memoir which gives this remarkable artist her due and questions how far Hollywood has come in its perception of women.

Patrick wore many hats in her career. In addition to designing creatures, she was one of the first woman animators at Disney, a modestly successful film actress, and a makeup artist. While she managed to do well in all these fields, her greatest talent was drawing with skill and imagination. She was so good that when she showed Universal make-up department head Bud Westmore her drawings while she was she was sitting in the make-up chair one day, he was inspired to hire her on the spot, make her the first woman to work for a major studio as a make-up designer.

While Patrick would be best known for creating the frightening, but sympathetic Gill-man creature, she had her hand in other projects, such as the creation of the bobble-headed Metaluna Mutant for This Island Earth (1955). She showed all signs that she would have a long, creative career, but it was not to be. Ironically, the man who gave her big break would be the one to end her design career.

While Westmore could spot talent, he was not a nice man. As a department head he was notorious for cruel behavior, employee harassment and jealousy. He wanted credit for all the work completed by his department and the Gill-man was no exception.

When the Universal Studios publicity department decided the novelty of a glamorous, poised woman like Patrick designing such a horrifying creature made her a perfect fit for a publicity tour for the film, Westmore was furious. Though she deserved credit for her design work, he didn’t want to give it to her. Though she was eventually allowed to go on the tour with strict orders from her boss to give him full credit for the design, audiences and media still gave her credit and he was furious. When she returned from the tour, she had lost her job and since Westmore’s brothers had a lock on the make-up design trade in Hollywood, she had also lost her career.

Patrick seems to have taken this injustice in stride, likely accepting it as a normal occurrence for the age, but O’Meara takes on the rage for her. She not only exposes the many ways in which Milicent has been denied credit for her work and the infuriating details of how she lost her career, but she has correlated those issues with the sexist behavior she has encountered in her own work in the film industry.

In addition to connecting her own stories to those of Patrick, O’Meara shares the frustrations and complications of trying to find information about the artist and her career. Without her own story, there wouldn’t be enough material about Milicent to fill a whole book, but the inclusion of O’Meara’s quest to save Patrick from obscurity and her own professional struggles give the story a depth and meaning that goes beyond the artist's personal story, while also perfectly placing it in historical context.

The result is a lively parallel narrative of a gifted woman who thrived despite the indignities she suffered and another gifted woman determined to make things better by standing up both for herself and a fellow creative nearly lost to the past.

Milicent Patrick and her Gill-man (Image Source)

Nov 12, 2019

On Blu-ray: Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter in the Boxing Noir The Set-Up (1949)

The rough-edged boxing noir The Set-up (1949) is notable for starring two of the best movie villains, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, as a loving married couple. It’s nice to see them be the good guys for once in a film where the rest of the world feels rotten to the core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Ryan is Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime whose wife (Totter) is desperate for him to stop fighting before he destroys himself. His manager also sees how damaged his client has become, but tries to use it to his advantage by telling a gangster the fighter will take a dive in his next bout. He doesn’t bother to tell Stoker about the deal, because he assumes he will lose.

The Set-up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem novella of the same name about an aging African-American boxer. According to Wise, a white actor was cast because at the time there wasn’t a black star with the stature to star in the film. As Robert Ryan had boxed in college, he was thought to have the skills necessary to convincingly play a boxer.

The film is notable for running in real time, which makes the action feel immediate and true-to-life. That trait is emphasized by a street clock that marks the time at the beginning and the end of the film. It is a characteristic at the heart of film noir: life can change on you very quickly and without warning.

There’s excellent attention to detail here, from the grimy feel of the Thompson’s hotel room to the cauliflower ears sported by the boxers. It’s an airless, sweat-stained milieu full of characters grabbing for what riches they can get, because the minute they stepped into the game, the clock started ticking on their self-destruction.

As Stoker’s worried wife, Totter painfully embodies the grief of a woman well aware of that inevitable decline. She loves him so much that she has gotten to the point that she can’t watch him crumble anymore, a decision he views as a lack of support or even the end of their love. With all the corruption around them, their fight to find each other becomes the core of the film and gives it heart.

This was one of director Robert Wise’s favorite early films, and for good reason. He makes a lot of a spare setting and a bleak situation, creating a compelling and in some ways hopeful story in the process.

Special features include separately recorded commentaries by Marin Scorsese and Robert Wise which are a carryover from the DVD release.

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

Nov 7, 2019

On Blu-ray: Bette Davis at Her Best in William Wyler's The Letter (1940)

I’ve always viewed the films that Bette Davis made with director William Wyler as an emotionally charged conversation between actress and filmmaker. There’s something precise about the cinema they made together, as if they are trying to achieve the perfect mix of the authentic and the dramatic. You can sense it in Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but I’ve found that mood most intense in The Letter (1940), which just made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novel, the story of a married woman living on a far east plantation who kills her lover first came to the screen in 1929 as one of the few movie performances of troubled stage actress Jeanne Eagels. Her performance remains remarkable today for its intensity. She doesn’t seem intimidated or restrained by the camera and microphone and somehow makes a playing to the rafters performance work on film. Her stilted costars look like they’re in another world. She’d first performed the role on the stage and seemed to have carried her interpretation to Hollywood intact. It’s a theatrical take, but it’s drawn from real, raw fury.

Davis’ take on Leslie Crosbie seems to have been somewhat inspired by Eagels intensity, but she finds power in repressing her anger at being trapped on a plantation, ignored by her husband, with nothing to do but obsessively make lace. She doesn’t feel guilty about committing adultery and murder, because in her mind, she had no choice but to find ways to entertain herself. She acts as if the true betrayal is by her lover for leaving her alone again.

This is not Leslie’s world though, and while the court is firmly on the side of the white upper classes, her lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) will see that justice is served. In classic Hollywood, even a rich white lady can’t get away with sinning in the end. As opposed to Eagels, who is defiant in her undying love for the man she murdered, Davis’ Leslie is tortured, and on a certain level realizes she will never have a moment of peace without him. It is possible that revenge is a welcome distraction for her.

Wyler and Davis fought hard about how the complicated Ms. Crosbie should be portrayed and the result is a ferociously executed performance that reflects that passion. These two have long been my favorite director and actress combo, because the turmoil of their fiery, but ultimately productive onset battles never fails to translate in some way to the screen. It is lively filmmaking which transcends the essentially orderly nature of making movies in the studio age.

The Blu-ray image is clear and clean without being too sharp. Special features on the disc include two different radio productions of the story starring Davis and her costar in the film Herbert Marshall. There is also a theatrical trailer.

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

Nov 5, 2019

On TCM--Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers, TCM is premiering the documentary, Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers on November 6. Drawing upon never before heard interviews from the ASC archives, the film aims to take viewers in to the minds of the greatest early cinematographers.

Image Makers is an essentially straightforward exploration of the work and methods of these craftsmen from silent pioneers W.K.L. Dickson, Billy Bitzer, and Charles Rosher to early sound innovators like William Daniels and Karl Struss. German Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund get their due, as well as innovators like Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe who took cinematography to a higher artistic plane.

Experts including Leonard Maltin and cinematographer Rachel Morrison weigh in, but it is film historian Kevin Brownlow who most effectively communicates the wonder and technical craft these filmmakers brought to their profession. Brownlow’s delight in discussing the topic, which at one point even moves him to tears, inspires a palpable joy which gives life to an otherwise fascinating, but by-the-numbers production.

It can often be forgotten that cinematographers had as many challenges as performers and sound technicians when talkies began to dominate. Image Makers addresses that transition and acknowledges the contributions of cinematographers like Struss who got the camera moving again after recording limitations rendered it immobile.

I most appreciated how thoroughly the film gives cinematographer James Wong Howe his due. A profoundly talented artist and technician, Howe molded his profession as he adapted to decades of innovations, from the beginning of sound films to the birth of Technicolor. It was especially gratifying to see his masterwork Hud (1963) given the attention it deserves for the way it elevated a Hollywood product to a deeply moving work of art.

Images: The Adventures of Americas Pioneer Cinematographers premieres on TCM on November 6 at 8:00 pm ET.

Oct 31, 2019

On Blu-ray--A Horror Trio: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), and From Beyond the Grave (1973)

I ended my October horror binge with a trio of unusual horror films recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Not a bad way to close out the month.

The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1966)

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this oddly-paced, eccentric horror comedy about a pair of vampire hunters. It's unique and funny in a low-key way, but for long stretches it bumbles along as if it has gotten lost. The fantastic cast helps, led by director Roman Polanski and Jack MacGowran (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and featuring Sharon Tate in an essentially thankless role which she elevates with her unique charisma (she was born for film) and glowing beauty. The frightened villagers are fascinating with their realistically wind burned faces, a dramatic contrast to the glamorous vampires living in the estate up the hill. The film is at its best when it plays with the conventions of vampires, introducing what has to be the first openly gay cinematic neck drainer and a Jewish vampire who gets a belly laugh out of a damsel wielding a cross which obviously has no effect on him. A spookily hip soundtrack by Chris Komeda suits the slightly scary, mostly goofy feel of the film.

Special features include a theatrical trailer and a very silly making-of featurette The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

In this television horror fantasy classic Kim Darby plays a lonely housewife who has just inherited her grandmother’s lavish, but run down mansion. Going against the advice of a handyman who has long worked on the estate (William Demarest in full Uncle Charlie mode), she opens up a bolted door on the side of a bricked up fireplace releasing a trio of pumpkin-headed goblins who constantly whisper her name and scatter in a symphony of screams whenever they are exposed to bright light. 

They want to drag her into the nether regions of the house as thanks for her releasing them, though it’s confusing because sometimes they also say they want to attack her. It’s an odd film; sometimes it’s laughably silly, but then suddenly you’re thrust into bone-rattling terror. 

I’m not fond of Darby. While I recognize her skill as an actress, something about her has always irritated me. As a result, my sympathy wasn’t with her as intended and I often found myself wishing the little guys would drag her away to put her out of her misery. Still, the slow-building tension is effective, and when you view it as an allegory reflecting the aimlessness imprisonment of life as a 1970s housewife, it becomes more poignant. 

It’s easy to see why this traumatized so many children who stayed up past their bedtimes decades ago. As with Warner Archive’s release of Bad Ronald, it’s also a rare delight to see an older television film with such a sharp clear image.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Steve “Uncle Creepy” Carton, Jeffrey Reddick and Sean Abley and another excellent new commentary by television film expert Amanda Reyes, who talks about a lot more than the film, placing it in context within the world of 1970s TV movies.

From Beyond the Grave (1973)

In this omnibus film from British studio Amicus Productions, Peter Cushing is quietly ghoulish as an antique shop proprietor who seems to have the supernatural ability to curse people who trick or steal from him. He works his dark magic on ill-gotten goods including a mirror, a military medal, a carved wooden door, and a snuff box. The fate of each of the dishonest people in possession of these items is revealed in separate episodes. A remarkable cast, including Margaret Leighton, Ian Bannen, and the wearily middle-aged, but still glamorous Diana Dors does much for this low budget horror flick. The best sequence features Donald Pleasance and his magnetically eerie daughter Angela Pleasance, playing a father and daughter in a cautionary tale with the otherworldly haze of a fairy tale.

The only special feature is a theatrical trailer.

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