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.