Feb 27, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: February Round-up

I enjoyed a great variety of podcast episodes new and old this month. If you know of a great podcast for classic film fans, even your own show, please share in the comments. Here are my favorites for February. Titles link to the episode:

Mobituaries with Mo Rocca
Anna May Wong: Death of a Trailblazer
February 7, 2020

I love the structure of Mo Rocca’s show which looks back on the lives of the dearly departed. In this episode he weaves his own telling of Anna May Wong’s life with a variety of insights from special guests like comedian Margaret Cho. It’s a fascinating mixture of biography and analysis. I’ve read two excellent biographies of Wong and still learned several new things about her here.

The Complete: Elaine May
A New Leaf
October 14, 2018

The Complete is a podcast dedicated to exploring the full filmography of a single director each season, one film each episode. Hosts Matt and Travis are now deep into the filmography of Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski, but I had to start with their second season, which explores the career of Elaine May. I like their first episode of the season, because they offer a solid biography of May and explore the challenges she experienced as a female filmmaker while also drawing parallels to the challenges women still face in the industry today. Their discussion about A New Leaf (1971) is a lot of fun as well, because they clearly adore her directing debut.

Nightmare on Film Street
Dead in the Water: Psycho vs. Les Diaboliques
January 15, 2020

I enjoyed this thoughtful conversation about Psycho (1960) and Les Diaboliques (1955) because while I’ve seen both films several times, the hosts bring up a lot of points I hadn’t considered. They’ve both got a great eye for detail.

Shout! Takes
Mel Brooks Remembers Brooksfilms
May 18, 2018

A while back I did a deep dive into the archives of the now dormant official Shout! Factory podcast. There are a lot of great interviews to be found here, a June 8, 2018 chat with Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter is a particular favorite of mine, but the episode that has stuck with me the most is this discussion with Mel Brooks. Brooks is so beloved as a comedy filmmaker that it is often forgotten how much he elevated film art with his Brooksfilms production company, which is most famous for producing The Elephant Man (1980). It was fascinating to learn more about his history with the company and get a feeling for his deep love of cinema.

Feb 25, 2020

On Blu-ray: Connie Stevens and Dean Jones in Two on a Guillotine (1965)

I didn’t get what I expected when I watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of Two on a Guillotine. With the cover gruesomely displaying a disembodied head and a drop of blood dripping of the title, I anticipated a Grand Guignol-style chiller. It turns out this wasn’t to be, but I enjoyed the lighter, more William Castle-style film that it actually is.

Connie Stevens stars as Cassie Duquesne the daughter of a famous magician (played with gusto by Cesar Romero), who gave her up when she was barely out of babyhood because of his grief over the disappearance of his wife (also played by Stevens in flashbacks), who was a part of his magic act. Raised by an aunt, Cassie hasn’t heard from her father for years when she receives notice of his funeral. When she shows up at the services, those who knew her parents are stunned to see she is a dead ringer for her mother.

Cassie’s father has left a bizarre will. His house has been willed to her, but in order to get it she must stay there for seven nights. Apparently Papa has a plan to come back to her from the dead. When reporter Val Henderson (Dean Jones) hears about this unusual arrangement, he smells a great story and begins to cozy up to Cassie. Of course his ambition falters when he begins to fall in love with the charming heiress.

While there are fun chills and twisted situations to be found in Two on a Guillotine, for the most part it focuses on Cassie and Val’s relationship. There’s even an extended sequence where the pair frolic in an amusement park (director William Conrad makes a cameo appearance next to a funhouse mirror). They’re an engaging pair and much of the appeal of the movie is due to their chemistry.

The baby-voiced Stevens hasn’t won much respect for her acting chops over the years, but here she demonstrates considerable skill and reserve. While there are ample opportunities for her to become the hysterical damsel in distress, she shows great restraint in scenes of suspense and is genuine and charming in her lighter scenes with Jones. Jones is equally appealing, showing range outside of his more famous Disney live-action roles.

After tackling several television episodes, director William Conrad (most famous as a television actor in later years and as a perfect criminal heavy in films noir of earlier decades) made this film as part of a deal to produce and direct moderate budget thrillers for Warner Bros. Here the cost-cutting involved using the already existing mansion set for My Fair Lady (1964) as the haunting Duquesne abode. Conrad would helm the also entertaining My Blood Runs Cold and the underrated Brainstorm the same year.

Ultimately, Two on a Guillotine is one of those movies where you’ll have a good time if you don’t ask too many questions. Trying to envision the logistics it would require to pull off the situation it proposes is baffling. It’s even a bit disturbing that an adorable white magician’s rabbit has the run of a mansion and no one ever thinks to feed it or look where they are walking. However, if you let yourself fall in love with the leads and trust the plot to unroll its own reality, it’s a lot of fun.

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

Feb 19, 2020

Streaming Diary: Classics to Stream for Free on Tubi

I am a huge fan of the free streaming service Tubi, because it’s allowed me to catch up on so many great cult and horror titles. I’ve noticed lately though that the service also has a fair number of good classic films available as well. Here are a few of my favorites:

Merrily We Live (1938) In a plot a bit like My Man Godfrey (1936) (which is also available on Tubi), a society matron (Billie Burke) hires a man (Brian Aherne) who she believes to be a tramp to work as a butler and he falls for the woman’s charming daughter (Constance Bennett). While it isn’t exactly a lost classic, mostly because Aherne doesn’t quite have the sparkle to be a truly successful screwball performer, this is  nevertheless a light-hearted, clever bit of chaos with an excellent cast.

Topper Returns (1941) As much as I adore Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the glamorous, ghostly Kirbys in Topper (1937), I’ve always found the sequel more entertaining. This has a lot to do with Joan Blondell, who stars in one of her most amusing post-production code roles.

Fanny (1961) Leslie Caron plays a young woman in a seaside French village who is impregnated by her sailor boyfriend (Horst Buchholz) before he goes out to sea for a long voyage. Maurice Chevalier is the lonely local merchant who offers a platonic marriage so that he may fulfill his dreams of parenthood. The sweetness and empathy of the characters make this an unusually charming film.

The Red House (1947) Though Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson are effective as a brother and sister hiding a tragic family secret, I tend to forget about them, because twenty-something Rory Calhoun and Julie London are so sizzling as a pair of teenage lovers on the edges of the action. Overall this is has long been an underrated noir and it's great that it's finally, deservedly, getting more attention.

The 10th Victim (1965) In this eye-poppingly mod Italian production, Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress are participants in a government-sponsored game in which the players alternate being killer and victim. This deadly serious concept is played for laughs in a candy-coated future full of shallow minds where comic books are considered as lofty as classic novels. Sometimes the parody hits a bit too close to home.

Feb 12, 2020

Book Review: A Novel Inspired by a Photo of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl

Delayed Rays of a Star
Amanda Lee Koe
Penguin Random House, 2019

I was surprised to learn that Delayed Rays of a Star is Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel. It is the kind of serenely self-assured, wise work you would expect from a long-established author. I understand the temptation to use the vibrant lives of real movie stars as the basis for literature, but so often the results can be an awkward marriage of fact and less-than plausible fiction. Koe not only draws herself into the heart of these three film legends, but she creates a transcendent narrative around them.

Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

Koe’s inspiration was a series of photos Alfred Eisenstaedt took of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in East Berlin in 1928. At the time Dietrich was edging towards fame, Wong had already found footing as a supporting and occasional lead player in silent films, and Riefenstahl had not yet started directing, but had a thriving career as an actress known for her athletic roles. They are a fascinating trio: glamorous, celebratory, and visibly not entirely in sync with each other.

Beginning with the lives of these three women, who each broke ground in their own way, Koe melds fact with speculation and creates a world that includes a few imagined supporting players in their lives. From a hapless worker on Riefenstahl’s film set to a pair of immigrants who meet through their very different relationships with Dietrich, it’s an often fascinating, though occasionally plodding exploration of class and privilege.

Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

While I appreciated the social texture Koe gave her narrative by folding less fortunate souls into the lives of her celebrated trio, I was most touched by the emotionally rich relationship she imagined between Dietrich and Wong. She has crafted a connection that spans decades, where youthful lust matures into weary mutual support. Koe taps into the key elements of these women, from Wong’s somber intelligence to Dietrich’s complex mix of traits from maternal concern to vain self-absorption.

It’s an original, unexpected narrative expansion on a series of images that could inspire endless stories.

Feb 5, 2020

On Blu-ray: Action and Suspense in Operation Crossbow (1965) and The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959)

Operation Crossbow (1965)

This fast-paced, intense action thriller makes better use of its big cast than your typical all-star production. It plugs its characters into the story with smooth logic and always with an eye on moving the narrative forward with satisfying efficiency. The film is loosely based on a real World War II incident where a group of British officers worked to uncover a German plot to manufacture an extremely deadly kind of rocket. The appealing ensemble includes a quartet of great English actors, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Tom Courtenay, and Richard Johnson, stars George Peppard as a highly-educated undercover agent, and features Sophia Loren in a small part (much smaller than the cover/poster art would have you believe) as the wife of the deceased lieutenant he is impersonating.

It’s a rousing action flick with plenty of suspense, though it may be a shade brutal for more sensitive classic film fans.

Special features include the vintage featurette A Look Back at Crossbow and a theatrical trailer.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

Harry Belafonte is lively and charismatic as a Pennsylvania coal miner who is trapped underground by the nuclear holocaust. When he surfaces to a world without people, he makes his way to New York City, looking for signs of life and a sustainable way of living. Belafonte is appealing in his early scenes, where he sings, shouts, and pleads with the universe to find him just one living soul. He’s just short of having the chops to really make this solo performance shine, but he holds his own pretty well for a third of the film.

When Belafonte finds a survivor (Inger Stevens) in NYC, the unwritten rules of society emerge again as they form a bond, but keep to the norms of race and gender. Their closeness is imperiled by the appearance of another man, this one white (Mel Ferrer). It is assumed that he will be the one to help potentially the last remaining woman repopulate the earth, though even in those times it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing a man as unappealing as Ferrer over Belafonte.

The film is most fascinating when Belafonte is on his own, struggling against a stunning backdrop of isolated settings. While his friendly arrangement with Stevens is interesting to observe, there are diminishing returns each time a new person is added and life become increasingly more conventional. Though the film didn’t have the big emotional effect on me that it seemed to be aiming for, I enjoyed it.

A trailer for the film is included on the disc as a special feature.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visitThe Warner Archive Collection.