Jun 27, 2019

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

June’s Podcast Roundup is another varied mix of familiar and new-to-me podcasts. If you’ve got a podcast to share (including your own), please tell me about it in the comments. I’m always up for fresh voices! All episode titles link to the show:

Ticklish Business
Stagecoach (1939) and the Complicated Legacy of John Wayne
May 29, 2019

I got a little nudge from the creators of this podcast in the comments section of my last monthly roundup to be included this month, but honestly, I love this show. Yes, I take Ticklish Business for granted, probably because it was one of the first shows I listened to on a regular basis. This is a great episode because host Kristen Lopez is joined by both of her rotating co-hosts Samantha Ellis and Drea Clark. They have a thought-provoking conversation about the Ford western Stagecoach (1939) and John Wayne which encompasses how Wayne has been a part of their personal lives and the culture at large, in addition to the western genre and the magic of Wayne’s breakout film. They also dive into the tricky business of problematic films and stars.

Just the Discs
Cleopatra Jones Super Fly!
April 22, 2019

Just the Discs is another one of those podcasts that I tend to take for granted because it’s been a part of my rotation for so long. Brian Sauer (also of Pure Cinema Podcast) is an excellent host though, an unpretentious, knowledgeable champion for movies, and especially those that tend to get forgotten. I especially love it when he has Stephanie Crawford as a guest, because they have a perfectly complementary knowledge of film and a nice, easygoing banter. Here they discuss the Cleopatra Jones movies, touching on what makes them so remarkable and sharing lots of interesting background details about their production. They also talk about the first Super Fly (1972) film.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror: The Podcast
Tippi Hedren
May 31, 2019

I’ve loved every episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror podcast, which is a companion to the AMC show. Here he shares the full interviews he conducted with the greats of the genre, which are excerpted in the series. My favorite episode so far has been his interview with Tony Todd, but fans of classic film will especially appreciate this interview with Tippi Hedren. The actress goes into great detail about her experience making The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock. She does a great job handling the more controversial aspects of her association with the director, acknowledging the distress his obsession with her caused in a practical and cool-headed way. Hedren also discusses Roar and her horror favorites.

The Film Programme
Mind the Gap: Barbara Stanwyck
February 12, 2019

I’ve been generally enjoying going through the archives of this new-to-me show from BBC Radio, but I was especially impressed by this short episode in which the hosts discuss the films of Barbara Stanwyck. “Mind the Gap” refers to gaps in one’s knowledge of various areas of cinema. I liked the titles they pick here, especially the underseen comedy The Mad Miss Manton.

I Blame Dennis Hopper
Karen Hannsberry (Film Noir)
May 30, 2019

I had to feature Ileanna Douglas’ podcast yet again, because my dear friend Karen Hannsberry, editor of the fabulous Dark Pages noir newsletter, was recently her guest. The pair had an interesting conversation about film noir and Karen’s writing about the genre. This is a must listen for any film fan new to noir and looking for title suggestions. As a big fan of noir, I found a few new things to watch myself listening to this episode.

The Movies That Made Me
Leonard Maltin
June 11, 2019

In an episode recorded live at MaltinFest, Leonard Maltin shares a list of movies that he thinks more people should know, one from each decade of the past 100 years. His choices are delightfully eclectic and, as always, he has a lot to share about the history of these films and the industry people he has met throughout his career. His comments about Jerry Lewis were especially interesting.

Jun 25, 2019

Book Review-- Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant

Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

It is comforting to know, that at this moment 102-year-old Olivia de Havilland is living in luxury in a Parisian hotel. With her bright white hair, pearls, and velvet caftans, she still entertains visitors, and shares pink champagne with them. That is behavior befitting the last of the greats of classic Hollywood. In a new book about de Havilland, Victoria Amador draws on her personal relationship with the actress, which includes indulging in sparkling wine together, to tell the story of her life, which was remarkable even for a movie star.

With her brown, doe eyes and sweet smile, it can be easy to forget de Havilland's iron will. That gentle beauty belies the determination of a woman who was before her time in the way she fought for career, independence, and happiness on her own terms. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment beyond acting is a legal victory she won early in her carer, known as The de Havilland Decision, in which she challenged the studio’s ability to add time onto seven-year contracts for suspensions; a win which changed the fabric of Hollywood and made life better for generations of film workers.

She had agency in her personal life as well. De Havilland made her career a priority for years, having affairs with the likes of John Huston and Jimmy Stewart and earning herself the title of “bachelor”.  When her eventual marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich didn’t work out, she got out with a minimum of fuss and with custody of her beloved son. When her second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante fizzled into a friendship, she crafted a modern, friendly arrangement for the sake of her children that worked brilliantly. In the end she managed to have a strong career and a satisfying personal life, all on her own terms.

Amador covers all of these events, but she focuses on de Havilland’s career and how she fought to play roles with meaning on the stage, screen, and television. Popular success was never enough for the actress; she wanted the challenge and glory of great parts. By the time she got them, she felt she’d aged out of screen stardom and turned her focus to family. It was not quite the end for her though and she had the luxury of being selective and filming what she pleased in the final years of her career.

The book is organized in an unusual way, it is essentially chronological, but it has chapters devoted to the core elements of her life, like her relationship with frequent costar Errol Flynn, her legendary appearance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her notoriously rocky relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine. Amador seems to be aware that readers will skip to these topics that have so often been the subject of juicy gossip and she approaches them all with a steady perspective, challenging what rumors she can, but granting de Havilland her wish to keep some things private. She strikes a good balance between “here’s what happened” and “none of your business.”

For the most part I appreciated the way these focused chapters gave Amador the space to fully examine the major elements of de Havilland’s life. The necessary repetition of facts and events in the more general chapters could be a bit tedious and confusing, but for the most part the narrative flow dips back and forth in time with ease. I was a little more disturbed by a couple of instances where her sources seemed unreliable: one where she refers to something learned on the notoriously undependable Internet Movie Database, another where she admits that her source was "admittedly dubious," but went ahead and shared what they said anyway.

Amador has had the opportunity to meet with de Havilland multiple times over the years and has maintained a friendly correspondence with the actress. As a result, she has gotten many direct quotes from her which are as interesting for the character they reveal as they are for the clarification of various details. I appreciated that while the author clearly wanted to be respectful of her friend and subject, she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her flaws. The book could have easily been a hagiography written by an adoring fan, but she seems to understand that kind of whitewashing would be a disservice to such a forthright actress.

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

Jun 20, 2019

On Blu-ray: Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950)

It feels appropriate that Judy Garland’s last MGM musical, the farm-set Summer Stock (1950) was one of those “Let’s put on a show” flicks, even if she was swinging with Gene Kelly instead of Mickey Rooney. Garland comes full circle in a performance made complex by her personal struggles and powerhouse talent. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds great.

It’s a stretch, but Garland and Gloria De Haven are just about believable as sisters who run their family farm. They’re struggling to pay the bills, which leads the stagestruck De Haven to rent out the barn to a theatrical troupe that wants to put on a show there. Garland is skeptical, but of course is eventually seduced by the thrills of the performing life and the charms of Gene Kelly, the group’s leader.

Garland’s involvement with Summer Stock was tainted by drug use, illness, and absences so disruptive that she was fired by the studio when production wrapped. That she made it through at all has much to do with the support of Kelly, who reportedly even faked an injury to give her time off on a particularly rough day. He had always been grateful for the help she gave him when they costarred in his screen debut, For Me and My Gal (1942) and stayed loyal to her throughout the rest of her life.

It is heartbreaking the way Garland’s struggle translates to the screen. She doesn’t look well. However, it is a testament to her remarkable talent that despite being physically and mentally strained, she still manages to pull off the performance, giving the role emotional resonance which could have even been aided by her strife. 

The studio decided a livelier ending was needed for the film months after production wrapped. In a triumphant coda, Garland returned from a vacation slim, healthy, and fit to perform Get Happy, which was not only an improved ending, but one of the greatest numbers of her career.

Kelly has plenty of opportunity to innovate here, his best moment in the You, Wonderful You number where his dance partners are squeaky floor boards and a scrap of newspaper. He’s also good fun with Phil Silvers (who doesn’t get enough credit for his musical chops) in the delightfully silly Heavenly Music, where their backup singers are an increasingly growing ensemble of barking, howling dogs.

Summer Stock
is a vital piece of MGM musical history, imbued with some of its greatest triumphs and deepest tragedies.

Special features include a featurette about the film, the cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, a Pete Smith short, a theatrical trailer and the audio for the outtake song Fall in Love.

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

Jun 13, 2019

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: Mexican Superstars Maria Felix and Pedro Armendariz in Enamorada (1946)

Before I put SIFF to rest for another year, I wanted to share one more film I enjoyed at the festival. It is the Mexican drama Enamorada (1946), starring María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz. For years I’ve admired the Mexican superstar Félix’s laser-focused gaze in photos from the forties and fifties and wondered about her films. I was delighted to finally see why she is a legend in her home country. I’d seen and enjoyed Armendáriz in the Hollywood films Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948), but here I saw him for the first time in a leading role.

Félix is the staunchly feminist daughter of the richest man in her town and Armendáriz is a revolutionary who kidnaps him to try to force him to give him money before he kills him. When he also falls in love-at-first-sight with Félix, he decides call off the firing squad in the hopes that returning the old man will give him a chance with his daughter. Of course that is a ridiculous plan. Of course it works.

In his introduction to the film, SIFF programmer Marcus Gorman mentioned that Félix had only done European films outside of Mexico. She understandably felt that the roles available to her in Hollywood would be too demeaning. While Armendáriz found essentially dignified roles in American films, he rarely had the chance to star. One starring role Armendáriz did win in Hollywood was in The Torch (1950), a remake of this film, opposite Paulette Goddard. It is likely that Félix would not have had the opportunities he did, and that at best she would probably have ended up in supporting roles similar to those Katy Jurado did if she wanted to keep her dignity as well.

Enamorada is light on plot, focusing more on the fireworks between Armendáriz and Félix. For the most part this is satisfactory, though occasionally the pace slackened and I wished for something a little meatier. It is a gorgeous film though, with several beautifully-shot scenes in a cathedral that are effectively filmed to show the all-encompassing power of the church in this conservative community.

Armendáriz and Félix are the true draw of the film and they are a lively pair. They both have eternally raised left eyebrows and fire in the belly, but other than that, they are contradictory in a novel way. This is because in a way they switch traditional gender roles. With his long eyelashes and tender eyes, Armendáriz is almost pretty; as ruthless as he can be, he tends to lead with his heart in a traditionally feminine way. On the other hand, Félix is more handsome than pretty and with the liberal use of slaps and firm determination to have things her own way; she is somehow vigorously feminist in a time and culture where that was rare and her behavior would have been seen as masculine.

This odd juxtaposition gives the film its energy. The pair has great chemistry in their comic bits and the subtle role reversal adds an extra layer of interest in these scenes. When they inevitably connect, it makes sense, because in thoroughly irritating each other, they have also awakened themselves to new possibilities.

I’m glad I finally got the chance to see Félix in action. It was amazing to see her for the first time on the big screen. I would love to see more of her and Armendáriz’ work in the films they made in their home country. Maybe another screening next year SIFF?

Jun 11, 2019

Streaming Diary: Discovering Experimental Masterpieces for Free at UbuWeb

As a lover of experimental film, I’m a big fan of UbuWeb, a no-budget educational website founded by poet Kenneth Goldsmith to be a resource for all things avant-garde. My favorite part of the site is its massive page of links to films, most of them shorts, but some feature-length films. Arranged by filmmaker, the clips come from various sources online and can sometimes be of low quality, but the page is still a great way to explore the work of different artists and see new, wonderful things.

While the offerings can get as wild as the imagination, there are several artists here of interest to classic film fans. These are some of my favorites:

There are four short films by the recently departed Agnes Varda, including the fascinating Black Panthers (1968), which she made during her time living in the United States. There’s also an interview she did with Susan Sontag in 1967.

The Orson Welles page includes his eight-minute first film The Hearts of Age (1934) and a documentary about his life that was approved by his companion Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995)

I didn’t even know that Les Horizons Mort (1951), an eight-minute student film by Jacques Demy was available for viewing until I saw it on UbuWeb.

Jean Cocteau’s  page includes collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter, 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957), a fascinating short about the images he painted on the walls of a French villa, and a short documentary about his life.

There’s also a couple of shorts from the early days of film: a live action comedy about a pair of dentures with a life of their own from Emile Cohl and the gorgeous Danse Serpentine (1896) from the Lumière brothers.

This site was also my introduction to decades of shorts by Portrait of Jason (1967) director Shirley Clarke: Dance In the Sun (1953), Bridges-Go-Round (1958), A Scary Time (1960), Savage / Love (1981), and Tongues (1982).

My favorite part of the Salvador Dali offerings on UbuWeb is the extensive list of links to his television appearances, including advertisements. 

If you watch anything on this list, check out the unusual animation of Tadanori Yokoo, a multi-faceted artist who dabbled a bit in film. Look out for bizarre cameos from Elizabeth Taylor, Alain Delon, and Brigitte Bardot.

There’s so much else to discover on UbuWeb. Like I said, it gets as wild as the imagination. If you’re feeling adventurous, I highly recommend exploring some more.

Jun 6, 2019

On Blu-ray: Tamara Dobson as the Heroic Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The first time I watched Black Panther (2018) and saw Danai Gurira in full warrior garb, grasping a spear and riding the top of a car with blazing confidence, I thought to myself, “There’s Cleopatra!” It immediately brought me back to an early scene in Cleopatra Jones (1973) where the titular U.S. Special Agent stands astride the belt of a baggage carousel as she sneaks up on the hapless henchmen she’s about to pulverize. When she follows up on the phone with a police captain, he notably doesn’t ask right away if she is okay, and when he does, he says it like he already knows the answer. After all, no one ever asked Charles Bronson that question.

There aren’t many heroines as uncompromisingly powerful as Tamara Dobson was in this classic action film, certainly not many at all starring black women. It’s a great film: entertaining, stylish and expert in weaving a strong social message into its fast-paced action, but I’ll always love it most for the power of its star.

Now available in a good-looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently rewatched this amazing film. As much as it is of its time, it is still ahead of the curve in the way it gives ladies, both evil and righteous, the upper hand.

Smart, strong, determined Cleopatra isn’t raped, menaced or undermined by anyone. Her man (a reassuring Bernie Casey as the delightfully-named Reuben Masters) doesn’t tell her to settle down and keep house for him. He encourages her ambitions to save the world and knows that if he didn’t approve, she wouldn’t give a damn. Even when Cleo’s finally captured, she doesn’t break a sweat and no one dares to lay hands on her with any conviction. If only this had been the start of many films with heroines who possessed her power and autonomy. Imagine what the world, and cinema, would be.

Shelley Winters is a torrent of rage as the evil boss lady Mommy. This was a magnificent period for the actress, because she ripped into her over-the-top exploitation flick roles with unselfconscious and endlessly entertaining vigor. Here she’s a horny, sloppy, magnificent mess; an outrageous Disney villain for adults. Cleopatra’s cool is the perfect counterpart to Winters’ complete lack of composure.

There is a plot. Cleopatra destroys Mommy’s poppy field in Turkey. Mommy retaliates by siccing corrupt policemen on the community home run by Reuben. Cleo returns from Turkey for revenge and a stand-off with Mommy. It’s a good framework for lots of action, one fantastic car chase, and the sight of Ms. Jones parading around in outrageous costumes that reinforce her superiority over anyone who dares to try her.

I wish there were more films with heroines as uncompromising as Cleopatra Jones. I’m as grateful for this film as I am entertained by it.

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