Dec 31, 2019

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up

For the first time in a while, every podcast in my picks was new to me. This month I was fascinated by a pair of shows featuring old time radio and two discussions about the new Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name (2019). If you have a show to share, even your own, please let me know about it in the comments! Episode titles link to the show:

Stars on Suspense (Old Time Radio)
Cary Grant (Part 3)
June 20, 2019

This excellent podcast featuring classic dramatic radio broadcasts of the Suspense program is my new obsession. Each episode spotlights a film star and a pair of radio dramas in which they performed. While there are lots of ways to access this kind of material, I appreciate the way it is presented here, with a little background into the star’s association with the material, different radio broadcasts of the material, and other interesting tidbits. This is entire podcast is binge-worthy, but I can recommend starting as I did with the episode featuring Cary Grant in a suspenseful adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain and a radio version of his film performance in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Down These Mean Streets
Triple Bogie (Bold Venture)
December 7, 2019

Produced by the same host as Stars on Suspense, Down These Mean Streets is the same format, but with a focus on detective programs. I loved this trio of shows featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This pair sizzled just as much on radio as they did in the movies.

KPBS: Cinema Junkie
Dolemite, Eddie Murphy, and Rudy Ray Moore
October 11, 2019

This episode is a great primer for those who enjoyed Dolemite is My Name (2019) but know little about its multi-talented subject Rudy Ray Moore. Host Beth Accomando talks with comic book writer David Walker and filmmakers Sanns Dixon and Dante Moran about the film, Moore, and Murphy. They offer great context and background on Moore’s films and legacy, in addition to Murphy’s work and how this film fits into his varied career.

The Treatment
Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski: Dolemite is My Name
October 11, 2019

As a follow-up to the Cinema Junkie episode, this conversation between host Elvis Mitchell and Dolemite is My Name (2019) screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski is a great history of the production. Eddie Murphy approached Alexander and Karazewski to take on the project because of their history of making biopics of unusual subjects (Ed Wood [1994], Big Eyes [2014]). It was interesting to get the full story on the production, which was in the works for over a decade; so long in fact that Rudy Ray Moore (who died in 2008) was still alive, and pleased to hear he was getting a tribute, when they first discussed making the film.

Dec 26, 2019

Book Review--Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom

Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom
Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Lies Lanckman, eds.
University of Iowa Press, 2019

Star Attractions: Twentieth-Century Movie Magazines and Global Fandom is a collection of essays that takes a serious-minded look at what is often seen as the frivolous topic of movie magazines. The twelve pieces gathered here find the substance in these periodicals, from the fans that populate Letters to the Editor sections to the stars that are the subjects of their pages. It is an academic take on the subject, and thus not a light read, but it is a fascinating exploration of many aspects of these once hugely popular magazines.

I was most fascinated by book co-editor Lies Lanckman’s essay, In Search of Lost Fans: Recovering Lost Fan Magazine Readers, 1910-1950, in which she dives into the data behind fan magazine letters sections. Since many of these magazines took liberties with the truth when it came to writing about the lives of the stars, it is reasonable to think that some or possibly even all of these letter writers could have been creations of the editors. Lanckman tracks down several of these letter writers via census records, both determining that these contributors were in fact real and also finding a lot of interesting information about what kind of people wrote to fan magazines.

While Hollywood film magazines get the bulk of the attention, there are also pieces covering periodicals about Malay, French, and Romanian cinema, not to mention an exploration of the public image of British star Ivor Novello (most famous for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger [1927]). There’s also a history of the long-running Elvis Presley movie fan mag. Elvis Monthly and a pair of intriguing pieces about the images of two of early Hollywood’s most powerful actresses, Mae West and Alla Nazimova.

With diverse subject matter and widely different approaches to each topic, Star Attractions is most rewarding taken a piece at a time. It is a varied, thoughtful approach to exploring a subject that seems light on the surface, but becomes more significant when you consider the influence these magazines had on their audience.

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

Dec 24, 2019

Deana Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 20, 2019

Book Review: The Retro Appeal of Merton of the Movies

Merton of the Movies
Harry Leon Wilson
LARB Classics, 2019 (originally published 1919)

It is the 100th anniversary of Merton of the Movies, a book that inspired three films (the 1947 version with Red Skelton is the best known), a play, and a musical, but which is for the most part forgotten today. While the book unsurprisingly has some elements that would be found insensitive in the current social climate, it is for the most part still an entertaining read with timelessly relatable sentiment. Disillusionment with the Hollywood dream factory was built in to the industry from the beginning and while this is a comic novel, there’s an edge to the laughs.

The story follows Merton Gill, a self-serious, small-town rube who goes to Hollywood after completing acting correspondence school. It doesn’t take long for Gill to find work as a prominently-placed extra, but jobs are not plentiful, and he soon finds himself struggling to survive. With the intervention of his friend, the stuntwoman Flips Montague, he gets back on his feet and in front of the camera.

However, being a leading man is not what Gill expected. His director and Montague play a dirty trick on him in the name of show business that leaves him baffled and hurt by the illusions of Hollywood. Maybe he isn’t starving anymore, but he’s lost his bearings.

Merton is a naïve man, which makes him funny to many, and the tragedy is that he cannot see why he would be laughable. In his fight for dignity, he struggles to understand a wiseacre world which he is unable to view with anything but complete earnestness. You smile at his profoundly literal perspective, but cringe for the day when he realizes how much he has misunderstood.

The action takes a while to get rolling, but once Merton gets to Hollywood the story hits its stride. It was fun to get a contemporary perspective on the early film industry, which did not take long to establish some of its best and worst traits. For all his superficial simplicity, Gill is a complex character, inspiring laughs, scorn, and admiration in equal parts. Given its general lightness of tone, it’s surprising how deep it goes.

Many thanks to LARB Classics for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 17, 2019

Favorite Film Books of 2019

There was an especially rich array of classic film books published in 2019. From great revivals to revealing memoirs, I learned so much and marveled at the grace of these varied tomes. These are the titles that stuck with me the most this year:

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
Victoria Riskin

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 thought [Fay] Wray’s [memoir] 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.

Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies
Mark Vieira

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Robert Matzen

While it is well known among classic film fans that Audrey Hepburn endured many hardships during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, there has been little firm detail about what the actress went through. The only certainty: the troubles she endured colored the rest of her life and affected everything from the way she ate and lived to the work she did...

...The story that follows is brutal and not for more sensitive tastes, but it is an important document of civilian life in war. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the story is that the middle class Van Heemstra’s made out relatively well: losing some family, but never starving or suffering assault from German soldiers, and still suffered the fallout from those times for the rest of their lives. It makes you realize how unbearably horrifying it must have been for those with fewer resources.

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young

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.

I Lost My Girlish Laughter Jane Allen with Jane Shore

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood...

...While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste

Van Neste has thoroughly researched his subjects, in addition to interviewing several of them, sometimes being the last person to speak to them before their passing. In digging deep into the details of these actor’s lives and capturing their memories so late in their lives, he has preserved a considerable and invaluable piece of film history. In telling their stories, he strikes a good balance between celebrating their triumphs and lamenting what could have been.

For more reading suggestions, take a look at my favorites lists from previous years: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014

Dec 13, 2019

Book Review--They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars

They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste
Bear Manor, 2019

I have come to deeply appreciate the efforts of author and film historian Dan Van Neste to preserve and promote classic Hollywood stars who are lesser known, but worthy of greater attention. His 2017 biography of frequent screen villain Ricardo Cortez was an effective exploration of an actor long overdue for a full career review. Now, with They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars, Van Neste spotlights several stars deserving of more acclaim in a collection of essays previously published in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images.

They Coulda Been Contenders is a tribute to the kind of contract player who worked steadily during the studio age and found a certain level of fame, but never reached the top rungs of stardom, despite deserving that status. It is likely that many performers featured here will be familiar to the typical TCM-watching film fanatic. I even count actors profiled here like Claire Dodd, John Hodiak, Marian Marsh, and Karen Morely among my favorite stars. However, they are not the kind of people who get full-scale biographies written about them.

Van Neste has thoroughly researched his subjects, in addition to interviewing several of them, sometimes being the last person to speak to them before their passing. In digging deep into the details of these actor’s lives and capturing their memories so late in their lives, he has preserved a considerable and invaluable piece of film history. In telling their stories, he strikes a good balance between celebrating their triumphs and lamenting what could have been.

This is a great introduction to lesser known stars for those new to classic films and a satisfying trove of information for fans of the actors profiled. It’s an addictive, informative read, related in a friendly, accessible voice.

Many thanks to Bear Manor for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 10, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Olive Signature Edition of The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

I don’t know how I got decades into classic film fandom without seeing The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Yes, I thought it seemed like it could be excessively sentimental or cutesy (two things which happen to not be true), but I also love Ingrid Bergman in anything and Bing Crosby has grown on me over the years. Fortunately, with the release of its new Signature Edition Blu-ray/DVD of the film Olive Films has helped me to fill this gap in my cinematic experience and opened my eyes to a deeply moving film.

There’s a timeless message in The Bells of St. Mary’s about greed, loyalty, and the necessity of standing firm in the face of hard truths. It has its frustrating moments, where a simple word of clarification could have saved great suffering, but has clearly been withheld in the interest of creating drama, but for the most part this is a pure work of great wisdom. Much of its success has to do with the brilliance of Ingrid Bergman, who manages to rip her audience to emotional shreds within the perfect frame of her nun’s wimple, but there is also the always-underrated Bing Crosby, whose persona has always been more appreciated than his impeccable control of each screen performance.

Bergman is Sister Benedict, the head of the struggling St. Mary’s school and Crosby reprises his role from Going My Way (1945) as Father O’Malley, the new priest at the school. The sisters of St. Mary’s are of good humor, they collapse into giggles at the sight of a mischievous kitten tangling with a hat, but they are also as brave, skilled, and determined as the most successful corporate salesperson. When the school is too low on funds to make crucial repairs to the building, it seems inevitable that they will sell the property to the aggressive owner (Henry Travers) of the new high rise next door.

This is a world where a higher power triumphs though, and while the outcome of the nun’s dilemma may strain credulity, it is pleasing in the just world it envisions. Director Leo McCarey shows love for all his characters, even those of questionable morals or deeds. He portrays each of them with the same caring touch and a sort of hope for finding gems in the grime of life, however thick it may be.

The picture on the Olive disc, which is a mastered from a 4K restoration, is clean and clear, with enough grain to give it the look of film. Special features include an audio commentary by Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, the featurette Human Nature with insight from Steve Massa, the immensely entertaining Sr. Rose Pacatte discussing Faith and Film (TCM fans may recall seeing her as a guest on the channel), Before Sequel-itis with Professor Emily Corman, Screen Guild Theater radio adaptations of the story, and an essay about the film by cultural critic Abbey Bender. It’s a deeply satisfying set, on a par with the best of the Olive Signature Editions.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a Blu-ray of the film for review.

Dec 5, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Restoration of A Gem, Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1950) with Simone Simon

Olivia (1950) (also known as The Pit of Loneliness) is a treasure that came out of nowhere for me. Set in a nineteenth-century French boarding school, much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), it reveals a battleground in the most elegant of settings. A landmark in queer cinema and a triumph for Jacqueline Audry as a rare female director at the time, it is also simply an engaging and beautifully crafted film. I recently had the opportunity to watch a new release of the film on DVD from Icarus Films.

As the titular heroine, Marie-Claire Olivia plays an English schoolgirl who is transferred to a French boarding school in the hopes it will be a happier place for her than the institute she previously attended in her homeland. At first, she is delighted with her new surroundings. She revels in the kindness of her fellow students and the relative freedom of more relaxed rules.

However, she is soon overcome by the continual battle between headmistresses Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon) for the affections of the students and her own passionate crush on Julie. Miss Cara is sickly, or so she claims, and self-pitying, coaxing the students to pamper her and bristling when she doesn’t rule their hearts. Miss Julie is more self-assured when it comes to winning the affections of the students, though she is no more confident or content with herself as she cruelly plays with their affections, drawing them in only to push them away when her desires conflict with propriety.

Both the head mistresses and the students are frank in the sensuality of their affections. Their intimacy as they clutch hands, sit closely in conversation, or cozily feed each other pralines is acceptable by the standards of their world. That closeness is meant to be temporary as they prepare themselves to be the wives of important men. When Olivia struggles to keep that perspective, Julie fails to set her straight, perhaps because she doesn’t want that conventional life for herself. As a result, their tense relationship further feeds the flames of competition between Julie and Cara.

The students live in a lush world of luxury, where they are well fed, swathed in fluttering lace, and occupied daily with light gossip about each other and, most of all, their two head mistresses. Not far beneath this façade of beauty and gentility there is the constant pressure of the conflict between Miss Cara and Miss Julie. In their fight for the girl’s affections, they end up punishing these innocents for their own dissatisfaction and repressed desires. The teachers and house staff observe this drama with a knowing eye, declining to step in. They are aware of their place and possibly not terribly concerned about their wealthy charges.

Jacqueline Audry was the first female director to distinguish herself to a wide audience in the post-World War II era. With Gigi (1949), she made her name by being the first to adapt Colette’s work to the screen, a task which the author had previously believed impossible, though she was delighted to be wrong. With that film she also made a star of Danièle Delorme, who played the title role.

Audry made Olivia early in her twenty year directing career, but she already possessed a sophisticated visual style. She situates her camera so that the audience always has a direct path to the feelings of her actresses. The dialogue is frank, but it is the silent emotions that Audry captures which reveal the instability of the residents of this candy-coated world.

Bonus features on the disc include 1950 and 2019 trailers for the films and a fascinating 1957 interview with Audry conducted by actor Jean Danet, whom she directed in La Garçonne (1957).

Many thanks to Icarus Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 3, 2019

On DVD/Blu-Ray: Ann Dvorak Steals the Show in Out of the Blue (1947)

Director Leigh Jason’s Out of the Blue (1947) aims for screwball comedy, but doesn’t have the pace or cast to fit the bill. Instead, it is an offbeat ensemble piece with a few plot points that haven’t aged well and a supremely silly performance by Ann Dvorak.

Based on Vera Caspary’s (Laura) novel of the same name, Out of the Blue unfolds in a busy Greenwich Village apartment building. The timid Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent) sends his overbearing wife (Carole Landis) off to visit her sister for the weekend. When he goes to a restaurant for dinner, he meets tipsy barfly Olive Jensen (Ann Dvorak), who invites herself back to his apartment, but only because she wants to relieve him of his brandy. When Jensen won’t leave, and exacerbates things by succumbing to an apparently regular fainting spell, Earthleigh thinks she is dead and leaves her on his artist neighbor David Gelleo’s (Turhan Bey) terrace. Arthur hopes to get rid of both his own problem and the artist, whose dog digs up his wife’s zinnias, but David and his new girlfriend Deborah Tyler (Virginia Mayo) are a step ahead of him and playfully thwart his plans. All the while meddling neighbors Miss Spring (Elizabeth Patterson) and Miss Ritchie (Julia Dean) clutch their pearls and call the police with regularity.

This farcical set-up with a decent running time of 86 has a surprisingly languid pace. It starts at a decent clip, but gradually loses momentum. That is due in part to Leigh’s direction, but it doesn’t help that the rigid Brent is clearly not suited to comedy. While Bey and Mayo are more assured, they are too easygoing for screwball action. It is Dvorak who crackles; so much so that when she is absent there is a profound effect on the pacing.

However, it’s worth it to settle into the bizarre world of this film. The enviably lavish apartments with their expansive terraces would never belong to characters of these means, but they are a joy to behold. It’s great to see Bey in a non-exotic role, and he is quite adorable romancing an equally appealing Mayo in his goofy artist’s shorts and socks with sandals. Dvorak is a lot, but she intends to be and it’s great to see her given the opportunity to sink her teeth into such a strange role. Her character and what she goes through will be unsettling to modern eyes; she clearly needs help with her alcoholism and no one seems terribly bothered whether she is dead or passed out, but that vibe somehow fits with the weirdness of the plot, however uneasily.

This unusual comedy should ultimately be rewarding to fans of the stars. It is an essentially pleasant oddity and on the whole an enjoyable watch.

Out of the Blue (1947) has now been released on DVD/Blu-ray by ClassicFlix. The film looks and sounds great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a collection of trailers for other ClassicFlix releases.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the disc for review.