Jan 29, 2019

Book Review--Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
Edited by Kelley Smoot
Rowman & Littlefield/Lyons Press

Given the fact that niece Letitia Fairbanks had a strong influence on its creation, the straightforward honesty of Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer is remarkable and refreshing. The 1953 biography of the pioneering star and producer delves into all facets of his personality, from the delightful to the disappointing. Now this classic biography, which was originally written by Ralph Hancock, with input from Fairbanks, is being reissued with new archival material and unseen photographs, under the editorial supervision of Letitia’s daughter Kelley Smoot, who has assumed the mantle of family historian from her mother.

There are troubling elements of The Fourth Musketeer, like long, impossibly detailed conversations between Doug and the people in his past, but for the most part this is a revealing and evergreen portrait of an actor and producer who set the standard for many things in his industry. It’s a deeply personal account, which taps into the man as much as his work. While Tracey Goessel’s epic biography of Fairbanks is the ultimate resource on the actor, this is a book that captures his soul.

Fairbanks was one of the first stars to make a splash in films, and alongside his second wife Mary Pickford became part of the first celebrity couple. He was also savvy to the financial benefits of owning a piece of his work, becoming one of the founding members of United Artists. As a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was influential in shaping the overall structure of film work as well.

Reaching that career status came easy to Fairbanks. He slid into Broadway roles with little effort and when he realized he was aging out of the best parts, he embraced the large paycheck and creative possibilities of filmmaking with enthusiasm. It was a great outlet for his boundless energy and restlessness, though even bounding through a series of physically ambitious roles was ultimately not enough to satisfy him.

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Fairbanks would travel as much as possible, always striving to find a way to occupy himself. That insatiable quest for satisfaction is the primary theme running through The Fourth Musketeer. As easy as material success and romance came to Doug, his struggle to reckon with himself was more daunting. The key to that may be found in his failure to forge a paternal bond with his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who eventually leaned into a close friendship instead with his father. The actor seems to have feared the way fatherhood made him face his own mortality and the fact that he wasn’t always going to be able to bound through life with the athletic vigor of his youth.

Hancock and Fairbanks are admirable in their thorough examination of Doug and his complexities. Facing his weaknesses, and exploring how they were inextricably intertwined with his unique gifts, in addition to sharing exciting on-set stories and tales of his life with Pickford, makes for a compelling read. This new edition lets the strength of the original book dominate, with the new materials providing additional support to an already sturdy narrative. It’s a great celebration of an eccentric, complicated man who remains as fascinating today as ever.

Many thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 27, 2019

Quote: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on Ernst Lubitsch

He never forgot that dialogue should complement, not replace, what is essentially a visual medium.

-Douglas Fairbanks Jr., about Ernst Lubitsch

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Jan 25, 2019

On DVD/Blu-ray--Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color

For the past eleven years, Flicker Alley has worked with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Fims to faithfully release several lovingly-crafted compilations of the works of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès. From its wide-ranging box set Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) to the robust release featuring a restoration of the hand-colored A Trip to the Moon (1902), the label has played a vital role in preserving the filmmaker’s legacy. Now in the new release Méliès: Fairytales in Color, Flicker Alley has once again partnered with Lobster and Blackhawk to bring Méliès to the masses.

Many of the thirteen short films included in Fairy Tales in Color were also a part of First Wizard set (with the significant exception of Robinson Crusoe [1903]), but here they are presented in restorations drawn from newly discovered elements and greatly improved digital technology. The result: image quality that is simply jaw dropping for a series of films over a century old. Details are sharper, hand-painted colors pop, and the clarity of the storytelling is all the more magical because of it. While the color was never meant to be completely realistic, in some instances it’s startling how true-to-life it can be.

While the original Flicker Alley Méliès set will always be the best bet for a deep dive into the filmmaker’s work, I find this collection the most compelling. The fairy tale theme is an appealing concept which ties in nicely with the magic of his style. With accessible stories and sharp clarity of image, this the ideal set for Méliès newbies and for introducing children to classic film.

Several of the films include narration, based on original scripts penned by Méliès, and read by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. These are useful, especially for younger viewers, as several of the films would be difficult to decipher without them. It’s also fun to get a taste of the charm and flair for performance Bromberg has brought to his own live shows at several film festivals, in which he similarly provides narration and shares assorted shorts; all that’s missing is the cheeky between films commentary.

The films in the set range in length from a minute to twenty minutes, with a fairly even mix of varying lengths. Among the longer films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) are highlights, while the brisk but fascinating The Pillar of Fire (1899) and The Infernal Cauldron (1903) are among the shorter gems. It’s a beautifully curated collection which covers a lot of ground within the confines of its theme.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the disc set for review.

Jan 23, 2019

On Blu-ray: Sci-fi Classic The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951) is deservedly regarded as a classic of the sci-fi genre. It’s got the requisite thrills and fantastic creature intrigue, while distinguishing itself with well-developed, interesting characters, a legendary soundtrack, and sharp production value given its relatively low budget. I recently watched the film in a gorgeous restoration on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in which it has been returned to its original theatrical length.

In a plot of slowly building tension, a team of researchers on assignment in the arctic discover a mysterious object which has crashed to earth and became suspended beneath a layer of ice. They soon realize it is alien creature inside a spaceship, and the being has somehow still clung to life. As they try to understand who has invaded their planet, and speculate whether there are more ships to come, the group fights off the attacks of this creature that lives on blood.

One of the best things about this movie is its effortless flow, which has much to do with the easy chemistry of the cast and the way their busy, overlapping conversations ring true-to-life. Sometimes the patter runs as fast as in a newsroom comedy. It has long been rumored that producer Howard Hawks directed more of the film than credited helmer Christian Nyby, and given the snappy rhythm I can see how that could be true. As the tension builds, the feeling of peril is intensified because you don’t want any harm to come to this vibrant, likeable crew. The camaraderie and skill of this team of soldiers, scientists, and a journalist are intensely appealing.

In this uniformly engaging cast, Kenneth Tobey is especially appealing as the captain of the mission; he projects reassuring ease as a hero who is inherently brave, but humble about it. Hawks created a female role on the originally all-male crew so that he could promote his new discovery Margaret Sheridan, who plays Tobey’s fiancé. There’s no mistaking why she appealed to him: she’s a dead ringer for his wife Slim. 

While the boost didn’t launch Sheridan into stardom, as a diligent, practical scientist she is a coolly intelligent asset and gently amusing in her banter with Tobey. Her inclusion is also remarkable for being a rare female role in that era in which she is an equal and has agency, though yes, she makes coffee for the guys; it’s still the 1950s. Both Tobey and Sheridan are especially intriguing because they’re not coy or silly as is often seen in roles like these. They’re just a pair of highly competent people who are entertaining because of the delight they take in their work and each other.

Robert Cornthwaite is also intriguing as a scientist who endangers the group because of his determination to learn more about the creature. As frustrating as it is to see him continuously create dangerous situations, it’s interesting how well the crew understands his desire for discovery. As a fellow scientist Sheridan in particular views him with compassion and patience. While the crew thwarts his plans in the interest of their own survival, they also protect him.

In a pre-Gunsmoke role, future T.V. western star James Arness plays the alien. It’s ironic that the only cast member who went on to great fame had in some respects the most thankless part. However, though he plays a roaring animate vegetable with no lines and little screen time, he’s the center of all the big scare moments and provides an exhilarating pay-off to all that slow-building tension.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack is a genre masterpiece, broadcasting uneasy doom with its blasting horns and slithery Theremin (the instrument of classic sci-fi flicks). It is deservedly one of the most celebrated aspects of the film. In the final scene in particular, it amps up the sense of dread magnificently.

Special features include a pair of trailers: one original the other to promote the restoration.

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

Jan 20, 2019

Quote: Lena Horne on Ava Gardner

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She didn't feel she was born to rule. She felt that life was crappy and that a lot of people got mistreated for weird reasons and she liked to see people like each other.

-Lena Horne

Jan 16, 2019

Guest Post: Film Discoveries of 2018 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks

To see my favorite film discoveries of 2018, check out my guest post at Brian Sauer's lovely recommendation site Rupert Pupkin Speaks. It's always a pleasure to submit to Brian's various themed series. I highly recommend you follow him, though I must warn you: your "to-watch" list will expand a great deal!

Jan 15, 2019

Podcast Round-up: 5 Picks for Classic Film Fans

I dug deep into some podcast archives this month as I explored a few new-to-me shows. Here are five episodes that I found especially interesting:

F For Fake with Tyler Mahan Coe
Episode 56

Host Bob Sham and guest Tyler Mahan Coe (host of podcasts Cocaine and Rhinestones and Your Favorite Band Sucks) have a thought-provoking conversation about Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973) in this episode of a podcast which explores the world of film documentaries. The pair explores the fakery revealed in the film, the possible fakery of the film itself, and have a spirited discussion about fraudulent people and the fantasies they sell. Coe is well known for his dedication to thorough research and is typically knowledgeable and engaging here.

Film Comment
Ida Lupino

Official Film Comment podcast host Nicholas Rapold chats about the directing career of Ida Lupino with guests Farran Smith Nehme and Sheila O’Malley in anticipation of a series of her films that were screened at the Lincoln Film Center last year. Not only are these gals two of the most compelling and informed film writers working today, but they have the lovely, elegant voices of a pair of glamorously gowned ladies in a classic Hollywood film. A purely enjoyable episode, even if you already know a lot about Lupino.

99% Invisible
The Architect of Hollywood
Episode 255

This slickly-produced podcast about the design that affects our daily lives is one of my new favorites. While it isn’t explicitly about the movies, this episode about Paul Williams, the innovative, prolific, and admirably determined architect who helped to mold Hollywood’s eclectic architectural landscape as one of the first African Americans in the field is as inspiring as an epic film biopic.

The Other 50%
Karie Bible
Episode 73

I’ve been working my way through the archives of this new-to-me podcast about women working in the entertainment industry and came upon an old episode featuring Karie Bible, who is the owner of the website Film Radar and co-author of Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays, but is probably best known for being the official tour guide at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Here she has a great conversation with host Julie Harris Walker about women in film, what was then emerging as the Times Up movement, and how she created her own job at the Cemetery.

Criterion Now
FilmStruck, Fandor, and the state of home media
Episode 76

Jill Blake (The Retroset/TCM/FilmStruck) and Fritzi Kramer (Movies, Silently) join in a spirited conversation about the loss of FilmStruck and Fandor and the future of streaming. There’s lots of food for thought here as the three discuss viewing options now available for film fans and anticipate the arrival of new streaming services.

Jan 13, 2019

Quote: Howard Hawks on Filmmaking

Hawks with Lauren Bacall/ Image Source

As we work on scenes, I always go back and say, "How would it be if it were directly opposite?" and sometimes it leads to very interesting things, because there is no particular reason that they have to run in a straight line--they can take a jog.

-Howard Hawks


Jan 9, 2019

On Blu-ray: Rod Taylor, Jim Brown and Yvette Mimieux in Dark of the Sun (1968)

It has long baffled me that Rod Taylor was not a bigger star. A romantic, heroic figure with acting chops to boot, he was capable of handling any role and capturing a widespread audience. His performance in Dark of the Sun (1968) is one of his best, because it captures every facet of his persona, from the rugged to the gallant. An effective cast joins him in this bleak, but riveting action flick. The film recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Taylor is Bruce Curry a mercenary who flies into the Congo with his best friend Ruffo (football-player-turned-thespian Jim Brown) to accept a job. They are on a supposed rescue mission, though they are actually there to recover a fortune in diamonds for the president. The men are given a steam train and a pack of soldiers to take them through territory made treacherous by the violent Simba uprising. Taylor also hires alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) and the shifty, but skilled ex-Nazi Heinlein (Peter Carsten) to fill out the team. Along the way they pick up the traumatized Claire (Yvette Mimieux) whose husband has been killed and house destroyed by the Simbas.

From the beginning of the film, violence is in the air. As Curry and Ruffo ride into town, they look out bullet hole-ridden windows at the litter of violence: trashed cars, cowering people, and the sort of quiet that always means bad news. It is a rare moment of ominous calm.

Once the mission begins, the horror of the conflict roars into view. This was a brutal film for the times, with glimpses of severed limbs, glimpses of rape, and an overall feeling of despair in the face of careless violence. That said it does have its moments of pure excitement. Brown and Taylor are magic together and their effortless athleticism in the actions scenes has a timeless appeal.

This was a perfect role for Taylor because it gave him the opportunity to both show off his action star chops and the emotional complexity he was capable of as an actor. He has a strong masculine energy, but it rarely feels overwhelming. Even when he’s slamming his fist into a desk and barking out a command, there’s a humorous lilt to it. It’s like a caress and he uses that compelling charm on both women and men.

It’s fascinating that the strongest emotional connection in Dark of the Sun is between Taylor and Brown. As in The Time Machine (1960), Mimieux has a pleasant chemistry with Taylor, but like in that film, it never sizzles. Of course this is partly because she doesn’t have much of a part to play. If you cut her out completely, you’d hardly notice.

This is not the case with Brown. He is the moral center of the film. Though it often seems it is the voices of others who are steering the emotionally conflicted Taylor in the right direction, he wouldn’t even listen if it weren’t for the empathy Brown inspires in him. It’s a great platonic love story the likes of which are rarely seen between two men in film.

Jacques Loussier’s bold, sweeping soundtrack perfectly captures the feel of the film. He alternates between pounding piano and lush melancholy strings, trading romance and brawn much the way Taylor does. It has the emotional heft of an Ennio Moriccone score and often sounds a bit like the composer’s work, though not quite as quirky.

Color is such an important part of establishing the mood of this film and the Blu-ray image is the best it’s ever looked to me. Special features include a theatrical trailer and a commentary by screenwriter Larry Karazewski, Josh Olson, Brian Saur, and Elric D. Kane that’s a blast because the guys approach the whole thing like a party celebrating the greatness of the film.

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

Jan 6, 2019

Quote: Lina Wertmüller on Fun

Image Source

I consider fun to be something priceless. Much more so than success.

-Lina Wertmüller

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Jan 2, 2019

On DVD: Dane Clark, Janis Paige, and Zachary Scott in Her Kind of Man (1946)

One of my favorite things about the snappy programmers cranked out by studios like Warner Bros is that they often feature players who deserve a brighter spotlight. They don’t have the booming personas of the big stars, and they are often called the “poor man’s” version of somebody else, but they are nevertheless a pleasure to watch. Her Kind of Man (1946), which recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive, is just that kind of film.

Dane Clark, Janis Paige, Zachary Scott, and Faye Emerson are a riveting quartet in this noirish 1920s-set drama. Paige is a nightclub singer who has it bad for gangster (Zachary Scott), despite the best efforts of a newspaper reporter (Clark) to win her over. Maybe the man she loves is trouble, but they connect in an almost innocently romantic way, and it’s clear she’d never go for another guy. As his wise assistant, Emerson is an interesting platonic match for Scott, trying, but failing to point him in the right direction. (They were also a great team in Danger Signal a year earlier.)

This is one of those built-to-be-standard flicks that achieve a little extra magic, thanks to a few special elements. Chief among them is the cast, which is full of reliable players. Here they all connect so well, bringing life to a story with nothing new to offer simply because it's enjoyable to watch them together.

Paige is glamorous, but touchingly sincere, and Scott gets a chance to add a more playful air to his typical scoundrel role. Dane Clark tends to have the air of a guy who knows he’s always going to be second banana. Here he is cheerful about it, putting that persona to very specific use as he strives to impress Paige, but doesn't take himself too seriously. I don’t know that it would have necessarily served the story well, but I found myself craving more of Emerson; the solidity and intelligence of her character grounded the film in an interesting way.

In addition to the fine cast, the look of Her Kind of Man rises well above programmer grade. Paige benefits the most from the glimmering cinematography, especially in her nightclub numbers. The night scenes are also a gorgeously moody backdrop for danger and betrayal.

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.