Feb 27, 2019

Noir City Seattle 2019: The Scarlet Hour (1956) and 1950s Noir

Last week Noir City 2019 swept through Seattle with a slate of twenty films, an impressive eleven of them on 35mm. This year’s theme: the noirs of the fifties, presented chronologically. I saw four films over two nights and as it was the middle of the festival, they were selections from the halfpoint of the decade.

Over two nights I watched Pushover (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), The Scarlet Hour (1956), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956). For the most part the pleasure of the event was enjoying a well-curated selection of noirs with an appreciative audience. With the exception of The Scarlet Hour, I’d seen all of them before, and had even seen Noir City host and Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Mueller introduce Pushover at another noir-themed event presented by SIFF in 2008 (both times he told the same story about Kim Novak not wearing a bra; guess it made quite an impact on him).

I went into The Scarlet Hour blind, with no idea that Michael Curtiz had directed and that it starred Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby) an actress whose amoral persona might have brought her greater stardom in the pre-code era or forties noirs. It’s an odd film, made at the end of Curtiz’ career and with a familiar plot about a cheating trophy wife trying to escape a violently oppressive husband (James Gregory) with her lover (Tom Tryon), but with an unsteady mood that keeps you on your guard.

As much as I enjoyed the rare chance to see Ohmart in a leading role, it turned out she was not the star attraction. That honor goes to Elaine Stritch, here in her first film, as Ohmart's infinitely more wholesome friend. In a rare case of Broadway oomph translating well to the screen, Ms. Stritch obliterates everyone around her whenever she appears. She’s all bubbles and laughs; a relative innocent oblivious to the seedy action that surrounds her.

It was also a nice surprise to see Nat King Cole in a nightclub scene. He performs the lush standard Never Let Me Go with his marvelous beatific smile and smooth romanticism. If there is anything to make the film a must-see, it is his performance and the spirited Stritch.

Feb 24, 2019

Quote: Charles Boyer on His Romantic Appeal

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I do not know when I became so nice-looking as they all say. I suppose it was when I lost my hair and began experimenting with the toupees. In silent films, I looked like a bandit who eats little children.

-Charles Boyer

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Feb 22, 2019

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: February Round-up

This was a bittersweet month in podcast listening, with the delight of new discoveries and raucous memories and the sadness of a great loss to the classic film community. Here's what moved me. Podcast titles link to the episodes:

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 35

Serge Bromberg on Méliès and More

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films possesses an unusual mixture of deep film history and technical knowledge paired with a flair for performance. He is a charming presence on this episode of NitrateVille Radio, where he discusses the release of a newly-restored set of Georges Méliès films, among other things.

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 36

Remembering Ron Hutchinson, John Bengtson on Where Silent Comedy Was Shot

This month the classic film community mourned the death of Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project. A beloved figure in the preservation community and among film fans, Hutchinson was responsible for the restoration of hundreds of shorts and a passionate presenter and promoter of this important part of film history. Musician and Project cofounder Vince Giordano remembers his friend and the work they did together.

The Movies That Made Me
January 15, 2019

Karyn Kusama on Michael Ritchie

Karyn Kusama is one of my favorite directors and I also love her regular contributions to the Trailers from Hell website, so I made listening to this episode a priority because of her and didn’t recognize the name of director Michael Ritchie, whose films she would be discussing. Well it turns out I am a big fan of Ritchie and didn’t know it. He’s one of those filmmakers who has made a lot of respected films, but hasn’t been as widely recognized for his body of work as some of his contemporaries. Now that I have made the connection that one filmmaker made favorites of mine like Semi-Tough (1977), The Bad News Bears (1976), Smile (1975), and The Candidate (1972), I definitely plan to catch up with the rest of his work.

The Movies That Made Me
January 8, 2019

William Friedkin

I heard about William Friedkin’s interview with the Trailers from Hell crew at The Movies That Made Me in the news before I noticed it in my podcast queue. The director created a bit of a stir because he said how much he hated Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Of course anyone familiar with Friedkin would find that frank opinion less than shocking; he’s known for speaking his mind. Here he’s delightfully crusty, cranky, and sometimes profound in the wildest episode I’ve heard of this podcast. I disagree with half of what he says, but love that he’s completely unfiltered.

Maltin on Movies
February 1, 2019

Mitzi Gaynor

In this incredibly entertaining interview with Leonard and Jessie Maltin, the perky Mitzi Gaynor of stage and screen reveals herself to be a salty, sharp-witted and fascinating dame. Gaynor is a great storyteller, with strong memories of her past and immense gratitude for her successful career. As I’ve always got a backlog of episodes I need to catch up on, I rarely listen twice to a podcast, but in this case I am going to make an exception because there’s so much to take in here.

Feb 17, 2019

Quote: Brigitte Bardot on Humanity

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In a way, humanity remains like an animal. It functions as a herd. Man is fundamentally selfish, and most people do not react to a cause unless it directly affects them … I want the public to be indignant, to come out of its comfort zone.

-Brigitte Bardot

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Feb 13, 2019

Book Review--Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master, MGM Director of Garbo, Crawford and Gable

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

Unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, such as Ford, Wyler and Cukor, the name Clarence Brown can draw a blank face from even classic film fans. It’s only until you consider the stars the MGM director worked with: Valentino, Garbo, Crawford, and Gable, or the films he made: Flesh and the Devil (1926), National Velvet (1944), The Yearling (1946), and Intruder in the Dust (1949), that you realize he was a giant in his own, less celebrated way. In a new biography by Gwenda Young, the filmmaker finally gets his due.

Brown was a complicated man, both personally and professionally. A trained engineer, he was drawn to the movies for their technical aspects, and yet he also had the ability to draw emotionally rich performances from his stars. On the set he could be subtle in his direction, pulling stars aside to whisper directions, but he had a reputation for coldness and unrelenting perfectionism. As a friend and business associate he cultivated long-term relationships and could provide much-needed support to those in need, but his multiple marriages often ended because of distance and emotional abandonment.

As a director, Brown didn’t have a distinctive style, which is probably as much the reason he hasn’t been remembered as an auteur as his reputation for being a company man at the behest of Louis B. Meyer. While it is true the director knew how to play the game, it did not prevent him from finding artistically fulfilling work and maintaining control over his career path. He cut his cinematic teeth under the silent film director Maurice Tourneur and the visual skills he acquired alongside him would inform his own work well beyond the silent era. Director Jean Renoir saw this knack for visual poetry and was among the few who found him to be an underrated filmmaker.

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.

This is a solid, much-needed tribute and an enjoyable read.

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

Feb 6, 2019

On Blu-ray: Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940)

I’m always delighted to watch Errol Flynn in any kind of movie, but like many film fans, I find him most irresistible in his swashbucklers. There’s a lightness to him in these roles; partly because of his easy athleticism, but also because he never seems to be taking things too seriously. Maybe there was a bit of self-mockery at play there, but the effect is charming. It was fun to see him again in one of his best roles as English Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), which recently debuted on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The Sea Hawk is grand, big studio, golden era filmmaking. With majestic brass on the soundtrack, magnificent towering sets, and gorgeous costumes, it is a luxurious production. The film also benefits from some of the most charismatic players of the day: Claude Rains playing a Spaniard, Flora Robson as an appropriately regal, but lightly humorous Queen Elizabeth, and the eternally reliable Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Alan Hale as support. Flynn is at his most dashing, approaching his role with a pleasing mix of gravity and zing. While there are many who wish Flynn’s frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland had played his love interest here, and it is true those two would have had more sparks between them, I liked Brenda Marshall’s moodier vibe, not to mention that she’s more believable as the niece of a Spanish ambassador (Rains).

Flynn’s Captain Geoffrey is the leader of a band of privateers who sail the sea taking supposed reparations for England. They have the public disapproval and private support of the queen when the crew commandeers a ship carrying Rains and Marshall. He is enroute to the queen to attempt to distract her from her suspicions about King Philip of Spain, who is secretly planning to send an armada to England in his quest for world domination. Marshall instantly falls for Flynn, how could she not? And settles into a new life as a lady in waiting for the queen.

Queen Elizabeth accepts the Captain’s suggested plan for a secret mission to intercept a shipment of Spanish gold. When he and his men are captured and enslaved, he learns about the armada and escapes so that he can warn his queen. All the while, he must deal with the treachery of Rains and Daniell, who is a traitor working undercover for Spain.

While it doesn’t skimp on story, The Sea Hawk is a classic because of its magnificent action set pieces. It opens with a chaotic sea battle, keeps up the pace with a few other bursts of excitement and closes with a fast-paced swordfight between Daniell and Flynn that ends in near darkness as Errol slices the tops off candles. These moments, and the charisma of the players, for the most part justify the long running time, though I did find myself drifting at the midpoint of the film, until those final action sequences roared into action.

The restored disc image is of solid if not sparkling quality. A sepia sequence midway through the film seemed less sharp, but overall there are no significant issues with the look of the film.

Special features include the featurette The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action, which includes astonishing footage of the enormous and elaborately-designed ships constructed for the production. It was lovely to see interviewee Robert Osborne talk about the film as well. The disc includes the Warner Night at the Movies 1940 feature from the DVD release, introduced by Leonard Maltin, which replicates a night at the theater back in the day with a newsreel, live-action short Alice in Movieland (featuring a pre-stardom Joan Leslie), the cartoon Porky’s Poor Fish, and theatrical trailers.

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