Jun 24, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

While I am in the habit of celebrating black excellence in my podcast round-ups, we are living in a difficult, but remarkable moment, one which I hope leads to positive change and justice, and in response I wanted to send a little more love out there this month by focusing entirely on black hosts and guests.

While they don’t focus on classic movies, I also recommend these podcasts about movies and culture which center black voices: The TreatmentStill Processing, Black Men Can’t Jump In Hollywood, The Curvy Critic, and Bad Romance (RIP Slate: Represent and Another Round).

Enjoy the round-up. Titles link to episodes:

The Black Film Space Podcast
Rachel Moseley-Wood on 1950’s Caribbean Cinema
June 8, 2020

This wasn’t so much a podcast episode as an engrossing lecture about the Jamaican Film Unit and the way films were made, distributed, and viewed in the mid-century Caribbean. Moseley-Wood is a lecturer at the University of West Indies and author of Show Us as We Are: Place, Nation & Identity in Jamaican Film. She had a lot to share in this incredibly informative hour.

Micheaux Mission
Night of the Living Dead
October 16, 2019

If you want to get right to the movie discussion, start this episode at about 28 minutes in. However, be forewarned that you will miss an amusing discussion of classic TV westerns. Hosts Len Webb and Vince Williams, self-billed as the Men of Micheaux, are on a mission to “watch and review every black feature film released,” so while they do not focus entirely on studio-age classics, they do cover many of these films. I had to go right to their episode about Night of the Living Dead (1968), as I’m always interested in hearing different takes on this influential film. Webb and Williams have a great time together and they know how to shine a light on the most intriguing aspects of a movie. I was especially fascinated by their discussion of the way the zombies looked in Romero’s film. I can’t wait to see what they had to say about The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

Switchblade Sisters
Blacula with Jezebel Director Numa Perrier
July 4, 2019

My favorite thing about this episode is how director Numa Perrier characterizes the AIP production of Blacula (1972). Instead of falling into the easy opinion of classifying it as solely camp, she appreciates the tragic love story within the exploitation trappings of the film. She also recognizes the grandeur of star William Marshall, who played an especially cultured vampire and always seemed like he’d be most at home performing King Lear.

The Movies That Made Me
Floyd Norman
June 9, 2020

Legendary Disney animator Floyd Norman bursts with love for his craft and the movies. I saw it when he shared his memories before a screening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) at TCM Classic Film Festival and again in the excellent documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016) which I enjoyed as a part of the TCMFF Home Edition. After years of appearing at events, Norman has become a sort of entertainer: funny, great with an anecdote, and imbued with the elegance of another time. Here he shares the films that most influenced him with hosts Josh Olson and Joe Dante. While they are titles that will be extremely familiar to classic film fans, there is an extra layer of excitement to the animator's memories of them because he saw so many of these movies first run or in revival theaters. I loved getting the perspective of a film lover who grew up long before VHS came along. He also tells an interesting story about sharing Song of the South (1946) with the delighted members of a black church and sweetly gives his approval to the live-action reboot of The Jungle Book, while politely offering honest criticism of other Disney remakes. I have the feeling anything he’d have to say would be fascinating.

Cinema Junkie
Donald Bogle
June 14, 2019

I wanted to revisit this episode from a year ago, because guest Donald Bogle shares a succinct, but thorough historical overview of black cinema. A frequent TCM guest and host and author of nine film books, he has helped me to discover many of my favorite stars, filmmakers, and movies.

Jun 19, 2020

Rewind: Good Books About the Black Cinematic Experience

A dapper group at a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas (Source)
I thought it would be fun to celebrate Emancipation Day/Juneteenth by remembering some of the books about the black cinematic experience that I have reviewed. I'm also going to share a few other titles that I have enjoyed over the years.

Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

There are so few full biographies of African American performers from this age; it was interesting to see Hollywood from the point of view of an actress who knew she could only go so far because of her color. McDaniel played an important role in improving conditions for her race, but while Jackson grants the actress her proper place in history, he emphasizes her humanity before the things she symbolized. This sympathetic approach elevates an otherwise straightforward biography.

Though Robeson only appeared in a handful of films, he made a significant impact as one of the few black men who played substantial roles in the movies of his era. From the experimental film Borderline (1930) and the Oscar Micheaux production of Body and Soul (1925), to his legendary performance in Show Boat (1936) and strong British films such as Jericho (1937), his influence was widespread. While his cinematic performances were for the most part a sideline to the rest of his career, I felt there was sufficient coverage of his roles to satisfy movie fans.

Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans

The story of black victory at the Oscars is complicated: a saga of small steps forward, but often uneasy circumstances surrounding those gains. Winning isn’t just a matter of earning recognition, but also a reflection of what kinds of stories, roles, and stars get rewarded. In a new book, Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans, Frederick Gooding, Jr. approaches the subject with clarity and compassion, acknowledging progress, while analyzing the quality of those advancements.

Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights, 1976-2016

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.

I haven't reviewed these books, but they're all fascinating and have been highly influential in expanding my film education and molding my taste in movies:

Jun 17, 2020

On Blu-ray: A Magnificent Restoration of the Two-Strip Horror Flick The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

My introduction to the pre-code horror flick Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) came from the book that provided most of my early film education, 500 Great Films, by Daniel and Susan Cohen. The brief passage dedicated to the movie revealed that it was lost for twenty-five years and over that time, “developed the reputation of being a masterpiece.” This was apparently was not found to be true upon its rediscovery, though it still had a lot to offer, enough to be included among “500 Great Films.”

I can see why audiences could have been underwhelmed the newly unearthed film: it’s a horror movie with half of its running time devoted to a high-spirited, wisecracking reporter trying to unravel the titular mystery. Picture a movie with the pep of a Gold Diggers flick without the musical numbers and with a healthy helping of Grand Guignol folded in. It’s an important film though: highly influential in both the horror genre and in the development of the lady reporter archetype, and as can be seen in a beautifully restored version of the film now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, a striking example of the short-lived two-strip Technicolor process.

Lionel Atwell stars as Ivan Igor, the talented sculptor who creates a collection of stunningly realistic wax figures. When the museum that houses his figures is set ablaze and his masterpieces melt away, the artist resorts to desperate measures to rebuild his life’s work. Fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) becomes suspicious of the mysterious Igor’s methods and begins to investigate, while he develops an obsession with her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray), also the girlfriend of one of his sculptors (Allen Vincent). The reason? She is a dead ringer for his most lamented loss, a masterful rendering of Marie Antoinette. While Florence snoops around Igor’s basement and banters with her editor (Frank McHugh), Charlotte falls more deeply into danger.

Two-strip Technicolor is a great process for horror, its wash of seawater green and petal pink lends an eerie, otherworldly appearance to a film. Here it is most effective in the gallery scenes, where several live models were enlisted to stand in for wax figures that melted too quickly under the hot lights required for color filming. They briefly blink, purse their lips, or sway, adding to a sense of unease and the feeling that you can’t believe what you see.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film’s combination of horror and comedy if the journalists had been anyone but Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh. Aside from being irresistible in any setting, they appear worn enough around the edges to make you believe that they’ve seen plenty of horrors and would be able to crack wise in the face of a situation as startling as this one. While Fay Wray was clearly hired to scream and look pretty, she’s too charismatic to be a passive horror doll; she plays her character with intelligence and gravity, despite having to go over-the-top with her screams, clearly a directive of director Michael Curtiz. For all the death and destruction he causes, Atwell is not entirely creepy in his role; you consistently feel the pain of his artistic loss, as unsympathetic as he is in the end.

Curtiz populated his film with a cast of fascinating supporting characters and bit players, creating a lived-in feeling of realism. His camera smoothly glides through his remarkable sets with a calm eye on the bizarre proceedings. Even in a clearly perilous scene like the burning of the wax museums, where it is obvious the actors are actually in danger, Curtiz’ camera stops to observe, watching the eyes slide down a waxy skull with as much attention as the battle taking place in the foreground.

The special features on Blu-ray are especially robust for a Warner Archive release. They include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray, which is essentially an interview with the actress’ daughter and biographer Victoria Riskin, who provides great background and analysis of her mother’s career. There are two commentary tracks: one with Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rhode and the other with Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which has includes the added bonus of audio clips from reviews with Wray and Farrell. There’s also a brief featurette about the restoration, which in several comparison shots shows how ragged the film has been for the past several decades and how remarkable it is to finally be able to view it as intended.

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

Jun 10, 2020

Book Review: An Mexican Immigrant Becomes a Movie Star in The Five Acts of Diego León

The Five Acts of Diego León
Alex Espinoza
LARB Libros, 2019 (originally published 2013)

I’m a fan of fiction set in the classic age of Hollywood, and The Five Acts of Diego León, a 2013 novel which was recently re-released in paperback somewhat scratches that itch. This story of a Mexican immigrant who makes a name for himself in the era bridging silents to talkies satisfies as a tale of hardship and glamour in a brutal industry, but is less compelling when it comes to its central character.

Diego’s story begins with his impoverished early childhood in rural Mexico. He is the son of a revolutionary and a disgraced society woman. When his mother dies, his great aunt Elva raises him, and teaches him the value of his heritage while his father remains absent. When he is eventually orphaned, Elva sends him to his snobbish maternal grandparents in the city of Morelia.

In Morelia he finds respectability, security, and in a family friend a mentor who encourages his interest in performing arts, though the latter is against the wishes of his grandparents who envision a life for him in the family business. With his material needs met, Diego begins to dream bigger, beyond the life of administrative tasks and the arranged marriage his grandfather has planned for him. He escapes to Hollywood, where he once again experiences poverty, but eventually finds success as an actor. Attaining that dream is not what he expected though; he remains unsettled.

Of the five acts that make up Diego’s story, the first two are the most compelling. Here he is a kind-hearted boy with curiosity and ambition. He seems to develop a strong moral core thanks to the guidance of his Aunt Elva.

This does not prove to be the case in the second half of the book, where Diego becomes a different person: self-absorbed, empty, and almost entirely inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Ambition devours him. In some ways the bold portrayal of this deeply flawed character is fascinating, but in the end he comes off as not just a man who has lost his way, but essentially soulless.

There are ample reasons presented for Diego’s behavior: the struggle to survive, the pain of being a homosexual man in a society that does not allow it, and the reality that he must deny his racial heritage if he wishes to be a star. I could understand his disillusionment once he attained fame and fortune, especially when he realized how ephemeral those things can be, but ultimately he was so lacking in passion that I lost interest in his fate. I shifted my focus to the many people he hurt and wanted to know more about them.

I was most intrigued by Espinoza’s reimagining of early Hollywood. He beautifully evokes the energy of the town, studio life, and the people who struggled to thrive there. I also enjoyed his dramatization of that early talkie phenomenon: parallel productions filmed in different languages. Inspired by the dual productions of Dracula (1930), where the English language version was filmed during the day and a Spanish version at night, Espinoza shines a light on the challenges of this unusual and short-lived aspect of movie-making.

While I didn’t always fully engage with Diego, I enjoyed his story and the world Espinoza built around him.

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

Jun 3, 2020

On Blu-ray: Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Ustinov in Beau Brummell (1954)

Of all the screen adaptations of Beau Brummell, the 1954 MGM production is the most lavish. With grand settings, gorgeous costumes, and attractive stars, it is drawn directly from the studio’s basic blueprint for glossy historical dramas. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds sharp and clean.

Stewart Granger stars in the title role of the outspoken influencer of policy and fashion who insulted and then befriended the Prince of Wales. A breathtakingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor costars as his illicit love interest and Peter Ustinov plays the reluctant heir to the throne. Also a stand-out in the cast is Robert Morley, who is suitably dazed as the mentally ill King George III. Apparently he was so good in his brief role that Queen Elizabeth II herself approved of his performance as her ancestor when she viewed the film at a Royal Command Film Performance.

As was the MGM way, a scattering of facts about Brummell’s life are filled in with romance, pageantry and a softening of his unhappy fate. Granger plays his role with bracing arrogance and is attractive, if not as charming as the part required. While Taylor knows precisely how to play her prettily passive character, she gives the impression of having untapped passion boiling beneath the façade she presents. The two look great together, but never really connect.

It is Ustinov who brings life to Beau Brummell. He is so charismatic and sympathetic that the film drags noticeably when he isn’t onscreen. With his oddball charm, the actor elevates what could have been an enjoyable, if not enthralling costume drama into something more compelling.

While the production could have greatly benefited from a romantic pairing with better chemistry or a Brummell with the sort of devilish, dashing persona that John Barrymore had in the 1924 silent version of the film, Ustinov lends the proceedings much-needed wit and charm.

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