Federico wanted to have all the faces in the world. In order to choose from them. He wasn't satisfied with the usual extras that were available in Cinecittà's reservoir. He sent me to look for them elsewhere. -Lina Wertmüller, about Federico Fellini and casting
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir Victoria Riskin Pantheon Books, 2019 I’ve read dozens (hundreds?) of Hollywood autobiographies and Fay Wray’s memoir On the Other Hand has always been one of my favorites. The sense of wonder and fun she found in life, despite all the hardships she’d been through was such an inspiration to me. Despite a few juicy moments and some minor scandals that were thrust upon her, she somehow comes off as a wide-eyed innocent, always open-hearted and ready to experience something new. One of the things I liked best about Wray’s book was her memories of her second husband, screenwriter Robert Riskin. After a confusing and traumatic first marriage to screenwriter John Monk Saunders, she found in Riskin stability and warmth that was new to her. It was lovely to read her memories of being happily surprised to find someone who was there for her whenever she needed him. She also shares charming memories of evenings spent with their three children playing games and enjoying being together. When I found out one of those beloved children, the youngest daughter Victoria, would be writing a dual biography of her parents, I was thrilled that I would get to hear that story from her point of view. A writer and producer herself, Riskin is well-suited to the task of telling her parents’ story. She skillfully combines memoir and biography in an immensely touching story full of joy and tragedy. 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 especially liked Riskin’s memories of her mother’s final years, where Wray had health problems of her own, but clearly enjoyed every moment life had to offer her. It’s heartening to know that the actress was always surrounded by loved-ones and well-remembered and appreciated by the movie-going public. Also clear is Victoria’s love and admiration for her mother, who despite the schedule she was forced to keep as a working actress, was devoted to her children and gave them all the love and support they needed to thrive, an undertaking that must have taken phenomenal strength. I thought Wray’s book 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.
I am thrilled to be a part of the media covering TCM Classic Film Festival for the sixth year. I look forward to this event every year, and not just for the films, but for the opportunity to spend time with the sweetest, most interesting movie mad people I’ve ever known. This festival is as much a community affair as it is an opportunity to watch great films the way they are meant to be seen. This is sure to be a special year at the festival, which is celebrating its 10th year, while TCM is now in its 25th year. This year’s theme is Love at the Movies, which I adore because we all need a little more love these days. TCM had fun with the programming categories: I saw Bromance and Magnificent Obsessions in there. As can be seen by that, the interpretation of love here goes far and wide. This is my tentativeschedule. As anyone familiar with TCMFF knows, things can change dramatically once you are in the thick of the festival: Thursday Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) was one of the first film announcements that got me excited this year; I love this musical and could hardly wait to see it in all its bodacious glory on the big screen. Then came Night World (1932). A pre-code with Boris Karloff always wins, especially when his daughter Sara is a guest at the screening. Sorry Marilyn and Jane. What I see next will depend on my mood. I’d love to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) to honor composer Michel Legrand, who passed in January, but if I’m not up for the heartbreak, I’m catching The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) on nitrate at the Egyptian. Friday If I could start a morning with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) in 2018, I can certainly begin the day with the tragically, but charmingly alcohol-addled Fredric March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). Call it a little hair of the dog. In a dramatic bit of counter programming, my next pick is Sleeping Beauty (1959) at the Egyptian Theatre. This is my favorite Disney film and I can’t wait to see the gorgeously-detailed animation blown up larger than life. The next programming block is a tough one. My Favorite Wife (1940)/Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)/A Patch of Blue (1965)/ Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) all tug at me in different ways. I’ll probably go with Sunrise though, because while it’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, I remember being stunned by the visuals. This is definitely one to see in a theater. I have no idea what Vanity Street (1932) is. I have no intention of finding out before I watch it. It’s a pre-code, so I’m in. I might keep the details of my next choice, Open Secret (1948), a secret (har har) as well. It’s good to go into a couple of things cold. The next block is another toughie. I ADORE Ida Lupino in Road House (1948) and it would be fun to see on nitrate at the Egyptian. I have heard wonderful things about Desert Hearts (1985) though and I missed it when it was on FilmStruck (RIP). It’s also my first opportunity to check out the new festival venue this year, the Legion Theater. I would never miss a Midnight screening at TCMFF, but I am especially excited to see Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961). Mixing that crowd with a luchador super hero flick is going to be big fun. Saturday I'm planning to start the third day of the festival with When Worlds Collide (1951). As much as I would love to behold the glory of From Here to Eternity (1953) on the massive Chinese Theater screen, I try to see at least one sci-fi flick at the festival, because it’s a genre I don’t know well and I’ve found it a lot more fun to watch these films with an audience. It will also be great to see Barbara Rush and Dennis Miller discuss the film beforehand. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is one of the great British comedies, Alec Guinness in nine roles! And Tarzan and his Mate (1934) is my favorite of the series. Gotta love that gorgeously photographed pre-code nude swimming scene. But there is no way I am missing the chance to see my heroine Gena Rowlands before a screening of A Woman Under the Influence (1974) a film I have somehow had the misfortune to miss so far, but will now enjoy for the first time on the big screen. Love Affair (1939) is a sentimental favorite of mine, I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen it, but I might skip it to take a lunch break and then get into line early for Nashville (1975), because JEFF GOLDBLUM will be there with Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, and Joan Tewkesbury for a discussion before the film. I am wondering if I can even handle seeing Goldblum, or if I will go into a trance the way I did when I saw Anna Karina in person at the festival three years ago. If I can’t get into Nashville, I plan to catch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) at the Chinese Theatre, because there are no other films I plan to see there and I look forward to soaking up the atmosphere of that magnificent venue every year. I am extremely torn about the next block. Victoria Mature introducing her father’s swords and sandals flick Samson and Delilah (1949), Kurt Russell and John Carpenter before Escape from New York (1981) or the pre-code, and best version, of Waterloo Bridge (1931). It’ll be my toughest decision of the festival, but I figure I can’t lose no matter what I go with. Next up, my second Midnight screening: The Student Nurses (1970). That is going to be wild. Sunday Scheduling the last day of the festival is always especially tentative due to the five TBA spots. If I can pick up something I missed because of a long line or other schedule choices, everything could change. I love the idea of starting the morning with a creeper like Mad Love (1935) with Peter Lorre, but Holiday (1938) is such a sweet flick. That’s going to be up to my mood. One of the easiest decisions of the festival: going to see the deliriously gorgeous Magnificent Obsession (1954). My first Douglas Sirk film on the big screen. Oh how I would love to attend a festival of his films, though I would probably expire from beauty. After that, I’ve got no plans other than seeing The Dolly Sisters (1945) on nitrate at the Egyptian. Maybe I’ll actually have time to fit a meal in. I love the variety of films this year. For the first time in a while, there are several I haven’t seen that appeal to me and I’m excited to potentially make some fascinating new discoveries. My only disappointment is that none of my must-sees are in the Chinese Theatre this year. There are a lot of good choices, but there’s always some other option pulling me in another direction. Overall though, I think this is going to be a great year at TCMFF. Are you going to the festival? Or are you not going but eager to share your picks? I’d love to know your schedule choices. Please also share your links to your own schedule choice posts if you’ve got them and I’ll add them to my post.
The Prize is an unusual film, with a mixed-bag cast and the unique premise of romance and intrigue in the milieu of the Pulitzer Prize ceremony. Starring Paul Newman, Elke Sommer and the eternally reliable Edward G. Robinson, it has the rare quality of seeming simultaneously familiar and bizarrely novel. Now Warner Archive has released this Stockholm-set thriller on Blu-ray, a copy of which I will be giving away! (See bottom of post for details.) Newman and Robinson have traveled to Stockholm to be awarded the Pulitzer for literature and physics respectively, the former under the watchful eye of hostess Sommer, the latter with his niece (Diane Baker). They settle into a plush hotel where they are gifted with champagne and lavish gift baskets. Here we meet the other prize winners in a series of lightly humorous vignettes that belie the danger to come. Notorious for heavy drinking and party boy antics, no one believes Newman when he begins to suspect that Robinson has been switched with an impostor. He keeps pressing though, and digging with that writer’s determination to reveal the full plot. Here the imprint of screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) is clear as the danger and mystery begin to imperil an essentially ordinary man who has no idea of the enormity of what he faces. Though it isn’t as juicy, The Prize has the high gloss allure of large cast dramas like Hotel (1967) and Week-end at the Waldorf (1945). It makes no pretense of existing in a realistic world. There’s an artificial feel to the way the characters interact, who instead of having conversations seem to be announcing to each other the witticisms they’ve been thinking up in their spare time. That can be irritating or great escapism, depending on your mood. Here Newman is especially guilty of his habit of seeming overly amused with himself, but when he is forced to focus on his physicality, as with a fast-paced bridge chase scene, he reveals great skill as a slapstick comedian. His romance with Sommer is perfunctory, for the most part because the actress was always a bit too cold and distant to be believable in a love affair. Robinson is typically in tune with his role and costars, hitting every note right with his reassuring ease. It runs longer than it needs to, and the cast could stand a few stronger character actors, but it’s a fun bit of fluff. Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film. GIVEAWAY!
Warner Archive has given me an extra copy of the Blu-ray which I would be delighted to send to one of you. Giveaway for US residents only. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me your favorite actor in the film and why. Responses due by Thursday, March 28. I will announce the winner on Friday, March 29. GOOD LUCK!
Thank you everyone for entering! I loved hearing your thoughts about the stars. I have drawn a winner: egon_beeblebrox! Congratulations! Please send your mailing address to email@example.com and I will send you your Blu-ray.
This month's podcast roundup is another fascinating mix of old favorites and new finds. I'm particularly impressed by the new shows that have been debuting lately. All titles link to the episode:
Movies Silently Death and Tinting with Christopher Bird February 26, 2019 Episode 1 In the first episode of her podcast, Movies Silently blogger Fritzi Kramer has a detailed discussion about tinted films with guest Christopher Bird. It was fascinating to listen to their insights about the technique and art of this early film colorization process, the dangers of nitrate, and preservation. There’s also a fun feature where Kramer provides the proper pronunciation for commonly mispronounced names in silent film. Stick around to the end for her giggle-inducing fake ads as well. This was an engaging debut. I learned a lot and I’m looking forward to future episodes.
She Kills Illeana Douglas and Grae Drake March 11, 2019 Episode 4 Shudder's new podcast about women in horror was an instant favorite for me. Though it's advertised as being hosted by Adrienne Barbeau, she only introduces and closes each episode and doesn’t interact with the guests. The core of each show is a discussion between two guests about various tropes regarding women in horror, such as the final girl and damsels in distress. So far pairings have included Karyn Kusama and Emily Deschanel, Jennifer Tilly and Grae Drake and Barbara Crampton and Clarke Wolfe. All of these are excellent shows and worth a listen, but I picked the episode featuring Illeana Douglas and Grae Drake (Rotten Tomatoes) discussing the "Crazy Bitch" trope because as always, Douglas includes the Golden Age of Hollywood in her comments.
Movie Sign with the Mads Easy Rider February 4, 2018 I’ve always associated the voices of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 mad scientists Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu with late night television viewings of the show as I settled down after a night out. It’s a comforting memory for me and for that reason I was predisposed to liking their film podcast Movie Sign with the Mads. They discuss a different film each episode, be it a classic or a new release, with their co-host Carolina Hidalgo (Sirius Radio). It’s no surprise that these two have a lot to say about movies, and their chemistry is a perfect fit for podcasting, but the added element of Hidalgo, who is a generation younger, lends an interesting flavor to the conversation. This is especially evident in their episode about Easy Rider, where the Mads share firsthand experience with the initial release of the film while Hidalgo talks about her impressions as a new viewer.
The Magic Lantern Andrei Rublev February 24, 2018 Episode 98 The Magic Lantern hosts Ericca Long and Cole Roulain have such soothing voices. If you listen to them around bedtime, it's a bit like a cinematic lullaby. In each episode they discuss a classic film, from big studio productions to art-house favorites. The thing that distinguishes Long and Roulain’s production from any number of other shows with the same format is their easygoing pace and gently reflective tone which is unlike anything I’ve encountered so far in a podcast. This is their first Patreon patron-requested episode, an exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966).
Book vs. Movie The Manchurian Candidate March 3, 2018 I have a lot of respect for Margo D. and Margo P., the charming co-hosts of this show in which they compare movies with the books that inspired them. While these two emphasize that they are not experts in film or literature, they are nevertheless a well-read, intellectually curious pair. Their conversations feel like coffee shop conversation: accessible, but thoughtful. I enjoyed their recent episode about The Manchurian Candidate, because they had their qualms about the book and are typically engaging and charismatic in explaining why.
Film Comment Art and Fascism February 27, 2018 Film Comment Editor in Chief Nicolas Rapold discusses an article from the latest issue of the magazine about German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) with the piece’s author J. Hoberman and filmmaker/professor Zoe Beloff. They discuss the culture and politics around Riefenstahl’s work, the legacy of Triumph of the Will in particular, her opportunism, and even float the thought that despite her talent, she is perhaps overrated as a filmmaker.
There's nothing more welcome on my doorstep (apologies to my cats) than a package of pre-code films. Here's a pair of new releases from Warner Archive that I recently viewed: Professional Sweetheart (1930) This lively romantic comedy catches Ginger Rogers before musical fame, but already in the full bloom of her charms. She’s plays a radio star with a spotless image, called the “purity girl,” but desperate to cut a rug in Harlem and dropkick her reputation for a little fun. In order to convince her to sign a new contract, the radio station suits allow her to pick a boyfriend from the bulging files full of the love letters and photographs she receives from her fans. The handsome, but dull Norman Foster is the winning pick. Rogers is pleased, and despite initial misgivings doesn’t even mind him whisking her off to the country to take care of his modest home, but the call of stardom is powerful as long as there is a radio in the corner of the living room. She hears her maid (Theresa Harris) filling her position on-air and doing a little too well in the role at that. Seeing the always charming Harris shed her maid's uniform for an evening gown and a place in front of the microphone was one of the highlights of the film for me. Unfortunately, her scenes as a star were brief and it is never explained what happens to her when Rogers returns to claim her crown. Though Rogers’ scrappy, but sparkling singing voice was one of the most charming aspects of her persona, here I was alarmed to find she was dubbed by the talented, but more operatic Etta Moten. It took some getting used to, though it wasn’t unpleasant. Rogers is surrounded by some of the best of the Warner Bros contract players; they’re the people that make you grin when they pop up in a scene. There’s Zasu Pitts as a half prim/half randy lady rag journalist, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, and Gregory Ratoff prancing through their shtick as radio executives, and then dear, bland Foster justifying his presence with a strong jaw. It’s the kind of Warner’s pre-code production where the racy stuff is inserted in lightning-fast moments and everyone knows exactly how to keep the action moving. Not a classic, but a very good time.
Unashamed (1932) Fans of Helen Twelvetrees will find little to surprise them in Unashamed. This murder-courtroom melodrama has the gowns, plucked eyebrows, and romance-gone-wrong that were firmly in the actress’s wheelhouse. Costarring Robert Young in his adorable young man phase, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, it is a production meant to reassure more than tread new ground. Twelvetrees is wealthy young Joan, devoted sister to her brother Dick (Young), affectionate daughter to her father (Robert Warwick), and poor romantic decision-maker all on her own. She falls under the spell of cash poor polo player Harry (Monroe Owsley) and doesn’t see him placing her into a trap via sexual scandal until it is too late. Dick defends his sister's honor in a heated confrontation that ends in him killing the sleazy homme fatale. Still blind to her lover’s faults, Joan refuses to stand up for her brother in court. Of course she eventually bows to family bonds, whatever the sacrifice, in the end. This unremarkable, but smoothly assembled production is best recommended for fans of Twelvetrees and Young.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Federico and Marcello never took each other too seriously.They both mocked each other for their diva status.They didn't really buy into it.They never lost their sense of humor. -Lina Wertmüller, about Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastoianni
Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights 1976-2016 Ed. Brian M. Jack University Press of Kentucky, 2019 For all the liberties it takes with the truth, cinema has always had a strong influence on reality. Whether it is the reflection of societal unrest or the ability to inspire movements among the people, its impact is undeniable. In a new book of essays edited by Brian M. Jack, the portrayal of the South in film and how it relates to issues such as slavery, identity, and social upheaval are weighed against the world in which these movies were released. The ten essays cover a wide range of issues within that realm, from the public to the domestic. It is as intimate as familial relations and wide as the systems that oppress people of color. In essence, it reveals a cinematic landscape that has evolved in the way it treats race, but still has a long way to go as far as telling a well-rounded history of the South. I was especially impressed by Caroline Schroeter’s essay which compared D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) with Nate Parker’s 2016 rebuke of the same name. She explores the way Griffith’s influential epic in some ways helped to set and reinforce damaging perceptions of black people in America, possibly including a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. When Parker filmed an essential response to the film with his telling of a slave rebellion, he made several compelling arguments, but as Schroeter notes, his neglect of female characters and denial of their own agency is problematic. At its best, the essays in the book balance history, society and the true state of social progress in this way. This collection is a thoughtful, deep dive into the South as it is represented, and it covers a surprising breadth of topics with success. While critical assessments of the problematic aspects of classics like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) have become a familiar part of cinematic discourse, and current releases are subject to a similar interrogation, the films of the seventies through the nineties are also ripe for new exploration. That is perhaps the greatest triumph of this collection, which digs into movies from that period like Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Color Purple (1985) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) with an eye to the society it reflected then compared the way things are now. Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.
The Blake Edwards western Wild Rovers (1971) strives to be many things, with varying levels of success. It embraces wide-open spaces, but knows little about what to do with the people in them. Featuring a beautifully-seasoned William Holden and a pretty-and-aware-of-it Ryan O’Neal, it isn’t the epic it would like to be, but it has its rewards. I recently watched the original cut of the film, which differs from the original theatrical release trimmed heavily by MGM, on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive. Holden and O’Neal are generationally distant, but emotionally in-sync cowboys who want to discard the cowpoke life for something more luxurious. Weary, and restricted under the control of the self-righteous ranch owner (Karl Malden) who employs them, they decide that bank robbery is their key to the good life. They don’t take into consideration the unwillingness of the society around them to let them whisk that cash away in peace. I went into Wild Rovers blind. With Blake Edwards as director and O’Neal giving Holden a big bear hug while sitting behind him on a horse on the Blu-ray cover, I expected something light and funny. While the film does have its goofy moments, it is just as often in a struggle to fulfill its grand ambitions. The warning signs come early. There’s the roadshow-style Overture, Entr’acte and Finale, the lengthy, sweeping opening credits, and the feeling that you are being nudged to prepare yourself for a profound experience. While these elements aren’t necessarily troublesome in themselves, they don’t frame the kind of film that justifies them. In that part of his career where he knew his craft intimately and exuded wisdom and weariness with a comforting gravity, Holden gives his unimaginatively written character and partnership with O’Neal the warmth of a man who is good with women. The glow transfers somewhat to O’Neal, who could never wear a role the way his costar does, but who also seems to have been positively influenced by the presence of a master. In this overlong, but somehow insubstantial film, the tenderness of their friendship and the lack of movie cowboy stoicism in their conversations is what distinguishes it. The outdoor photography is also breathtaking, capturing the purity of landscape and wonder of life on the range. As a reprieve from the occasionally stifling feel of the drama, these locations have the effect of taking in fresh air. They are a vivid backdrop for some decent, if overly dependent on slo-mo action scenes. Most impressive is the sequence where Holden and O’Neal attempt to tame a wild horse; a scene which Edwards had the men train for so they could do as much of the wrangling as possible. While it fizzles as the epic it wants to be, Wild Rovers is gorgeous to behold, ably anchored by Holden, and notable for its less traditional, and more personable take on male friendship. Special features on the Blu-ray include a trailer for the film and the featurette The Moviemakers.