Jul 30, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: July Round-up

One of the things that I've loved about the latest crop of new podcasts is that creators have been coming up with original and compelling ideas for shows. I hope this inspires aspiring podcasters out there to think big and go for it with unusual ideas. Here's what I loved this month:

The American Cinematheque Show
Youth Division with guest Larry Karaszewski
May 29, 2020

With the goal of sharing the many interviews American Cinemateque has in its archives, the group has created this show in which a guest helps to bring context to various clips of stars, filmmakers, and other industry professionals talking about their work. In this episode, Larry Karazewski discusses how a handful of young directors were given low-budgets and creative freedom to create a series of productions after the explosive success of the independent film Easy Rider (1969). It’s a great concept and clearly inspirational as I looked up one of the films discussed: The Hired Hand (1971) right after listening.

Success Made to Last
Angela and Veronica Cartwright
June 11, 2020

I’ve long been fascinated by actress sisters Angela Cartwright and Veronica Cartwright. They seem to have made the transition from child stardom to adult roles gracefully and it’s been interesting to see them thrive and try new things throughout the years. It turns out they have also been deeply loyal to each other. Here they mostly talk about their relationship, thought they do share a few interesting tidbits about their lives as actresses and how remarkably lacking in jealousy of each other they have been. It’s an uplifting conversation.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls
Hedy Lamarr
April 7, 2020

For the budding young film fan: the story of how classic film star Hedy Lamarr’s side interest in inventing led to the development of groundbreaking cell phone technology. Read with great charm by Tatiana Maslany. This is a great podcast for kids, but I enjoyed this beautifully-produced episode myself.

Alan Alda: Clear + Vivid
They’ve Filled Our Lives with Laughter: Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
April 14, 2020

I keep forgetting to share this episode, and now with the passing of one of its guests, it is especially poignant. Alda had a great conversation with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, his friends of over forty years. Believe it or not, Reiner and Brooks knew each other for over seventy years. And yet here they talked about the early days of their careers as if it was just yesterday. It was intensely joyful listening to these three content and empathetic men enjoy each other’s company.

Lions, Towers & Shields
Cornelia is Trash, Or She's Not!
May 24, 2020

I'm glad Lions, Towers & Shields host Shelly Brisbin gave me the heads-up about her podcast in the comments on my last round-up, because she's got a great show. I loved this episode about My Man Godfrey (1936). I've seen this classic screwball comedy dozens of times and it was interesting to get another point of view from Shelly and her guests. They have a pleasant, informative chat that I found thought-provoking in a fresh and unpretentious way.

This is Not a Story About
Bela Lugosi
April 23, 2020

Director Ted Geoghan’s podcast about lesser known Hollywood stories has been one of my favorite quarantine listens. The concept of the show: start with a familiar subject and tell the story of something connected to, but not quite that subject. In this episode he shares the history of the Spanish language version of Dracula that filmed on the same Universal Studios sets as the 1930 English language version with Bela Lugosi, but at night. I’ve long thought the Spanish version to be a better film and this episode gave me some insight into why it all came together a little bit better than the English language production. I also adored the love story at the core of this production. A big, beautiful story wrapped up in 30 minutes.

Jul 28, 2020

On Blu-ray: Jane Fonda and Rod Taylor Sizzle in Sunday in New York (1963)

Sunday in New York (1963) is full of men deeply and ridiculously occupied with preserving the virtue of one woman. You could say it’s of its time, though that’s not entirely true. The elements of the film that haven’t aged well are much less cringe worthy because of a well-matched cast including Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor, and Cliff Robertson. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Based on the play by Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplay, most of the action happens in an impeccably-designed brick-walled Manhattan studio that is one of the great Hollywood apartments. It is the home of commercial pilot Adam Taylor (Robertson) a ladies’ man who has just about driven his favorite girl Mona (Jo Morrow) crazy with neglect.

When Adam finds himself on the ground and with a free afternoon, he tries to arrange a rendezvous with Mona, but the pair is thwarted by the unannounced arrival of his kid sister Eileen (Fonda) from Albany. She comes to her sibling in a fog of confusion about the male sex and he isn’t much help in clearing things up. He takes off with his girl, entirely oblivious to his hypocrisy in doing so, and Eileen decides to take in the town.

On a crowded bus, Eileen’s brooch gets caught on journalist Mike Mitchell’s (Taylor) suit and that meet cute seals it for them. It’s only a matter of time before they give in to each other and it’s a lot of fun watching them get there. Despite interference from Adam and Eileen’s obnoxious boyfriend (the perfectly cast Robert Culp), there’s no avoiding the heat these two generate. Between Taylor’s struggle to be decent and Fonda’s Barbarella-style “well maybe I’ll give it a try?” approach to romance, the tension is delicious.

One of the best things about Eileen and Mike is that they never have to deal with the annoying romantic comedy cliché of having to hate each other. Yes they have plenty to argue about, but even when they tangle it is all about achieving mutual respect. This is a couple with a lot in common and they have some space to enjoy each other’s company despite the chaos around them.

In one amusing exchange in which they discover a common love of music, they tangle over the name of pianist playing on the radio, mentioning the composer of the film’s jazzy and cheerful score Peter Nero. In a later scene, Fonda sees Nero in the flesh, playing piano at his own establishment Club Nero. I thought his running presence was a charming touch.

Though he doesn’t get much screen time, it was also great to see Jim Backus in a small role as Adam’s supervisor. He's one of those actors who always make a part seem more substantial than it is. Call it the Joan Blondell effect.

Sunday in New York is such a reliable mood lifter. Thanks to its sizzling cast, it’s always a bit sexier and smarter than its goofy plot. It’s the perfect watch for a mind in need of escape.

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

Jul 22, 2020

On Blu-ray: Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee in The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

The Reluctant Debutante (1958) is one of those rare raved-about films that I couldn’t access for years, but found it lived up to my expectations when I could finally watch it. Based on a play by British writer William Davis-Home (also co-scriptwriter here with Julius Epstein) and directed by Vincent Minnelli, it hurtles through predictable plot points in a delightfully unusual and offbeat way. This has much to do with its lively cast, led by the bizarre and hilarious Kay Kendall in a rare starring role. I was delighted when this film that I once struggled to find on VHS was recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Set during the debutante season, The Reluctant Debutante stars real life husband and wife Rex Harrison and Kendall as the also married Jimmy and Sheila Broadbent. Sheila is Jimmy’s second wife; he was once married to an American. The product of that first union, seventeen-year-old Jane (Sandra Dee) travels from the US to London to have a long visit with her father and the stepmother she has never met.

While Jane and Sheila get on well, their values are vastly different. The second Mrs. Broadbent wants very much for her stepdaughter to be a sensation during the season. Jane couldn’t care less about status and husband searching on the circuit, instead looking for fascinating subjects to photograph and much more interesting boys than the snooty bores circulating the balls.

Angela Lansbury complicates matters as Sheila’s nosy, but not unfriendly rival Mabel, who is also invested in propping up a young debutante: her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare). A ridiculously boyish John Saxon adds more chaos as the polite, but worldly drum player with a reputation that Jane prefers to the upper crust swells.

Director Minnelli made little attempt to expand the action beyond the proscenium. With a cast like that he didn’t need to move far beyond four walls. Kendall had a way of expanding everything: herself, her surroundings, and the situation at hand. In a way you want her in a confined space so that you can appreciate every detail of her performance, because she works both big and small and it is a lot to take in. Harrison is a perfect foil for Kendall, essentially letting her have the fire, stepping out of the way, and taking his demotion to supporting spouse good-naturedly.

Tragically, Kendall was dying of cancer at the time of filming, a fact Harrison kept hidden from the actress, who thought she was suffering from an iron deficiency. She would die at age 33 in 1959. While she made several films throughout the 40s and 50s, she rarely found a role as juicy and well-suited to her talents as this one (Les Girls [1957] gave her another rare chance to shine).

With her sharp-edged beauty and screwball temperament, Kendall would have been a movie queen in the 1930s. Both onscreen and off she had the same merry, pedal-to-the-floor approach to living as Carole Lombard. Apparently she was also as joyfully foul-mouthed as her comedic soul sister.

As Jane, Sandra Dee is a precocious oasis of calm in the midst of Kendall’s whirlwind. Most young actresses would have faded away into dull straight-womanhood in this role. Dee can’t help but be compelling though. Even here at the age of fourteen she has a thoughtful gravity and a rare habit of listening carefully and learning quickly about the motives of those around her.

Saxon is equally calm, but magnetic. Having watched him play grizzled police detectives innumerable times over the years, it was amusing to see him in his dewy youth. These were the years where Hollywood seemed to think the Brooklyn-born actor should play Mexicans. He’s a good match for Dee, despite the slightly unsettling fact that this man is courting a girl who appears much younger than she is supposed to be.

With so many fascinating performers and the irresistible appeal of Kendall, this is a comedy romance that deserves more attention.

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

Jul 15, 2020

On Blu-ray: Robert Mitchum in a Film-Noir on the Range Blood on the Moon (1948)

The moody, fatalistic feel of Blood on the Moon (1948) is unusual for a western, if not unheard of in the genre. Its noirish story of double-crosses and turf battles could be transported to rain-slicked city streets with little change, the plot points as well-suited to urban organized crime as cattle wranglers on the prairie. The film recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in a print that shows the beautiful shadows of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past [1947]) to great advantage.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jim Garry, an aimless cowboy who is essentially a mercenary, but who likes to think he has some moral core. He takes a job serving as a cattle buyer for his old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston), believing that he is on the right side of a cattle dispute. When he finds that he has been manipulated by the deceptive Tate, he tries to come clean with wronged rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully).

Jim is pushed to the right side by Lufton’s daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). They meet cute when Amy assumes he is trespassing and takes a shot at him. He retaliates by shooting the heel off her boot. That’s as heated as it ever gets between the two though. Despite what we are told about their emerging romance, they always have a strong brother and sister vibe.

Mitchum has more chemistry with his male co-stars. He is carefully observant of Tate’s flashy manner and slick salesmanship (Preston doing a fine rehearsal for Music Man). Though Jim isn’t on to him right away, he listens closely to his friend, so that he understands how he could be the villain when the truth finally hits him. Their conversations have more weight because of his attention; you don’t feel like the words are floating away into meaninglessness.

One of the film’s highlights is a bar fight between Tate and Jim. Filmed with deep noir shadows, it has more emotional weight than your typical cowboy dust-up. Instead of the misguided heroics of most fist-to-fist cinematic match-ups, it makes clear how exhausting and unpleasant it is to try to beat the tar out of each other. Apparently this perspective was the deliberate choice of director Robert Wise, who appears set on challenging some of the simplistic tropes of the western.

Mitchum is also powerful in his scenes with Walter Brennan as a grieving homesteader. With his quirky old prospector voice, Brennan is often cast for comic relief, but here Wise give him space to display more emotional depth. When Jim comes to him with bad news, the director focuses on Brennan's face, illuminating the feelings of pain and loss he communicates with great subtlety.

While the director, cinematographer, and cast have much to do with Blood on the Moon being an above-average western, it is Mitchum who truly makes it special. While seeming to do very little, he dominates every scene: quiet, observant, and somehow more present than his fellow players. A true movie star who rejected the fuss that came with it.

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

Jul 8, 2020

On Blu-ray: Milos Forman's Giddy, Energetic Hair (1979)

When I was a kid, I used to love listening to my dad’s records. While he favored jazz, there were other things in the mix, like 60s rock, soundtracks and a few other pop culture touchstones, and that included the original Broadway cast recording of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's Hair. I don’t know what inspired 12-year-old me to listen to it, but I immediately loved the catchy, high energy songs. In the decades to follow I would realize how influential those tunes had been as I found them covered many times across different genres.

In all those years I never got around to seeing Hair on the stage or watching the 1979 film production directed by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]). A new Blu-ray release of the movie from Olive Films helped me to rectify that. While I enjoyed the film, I was left with a dramatically different feeling than I got from the record I adored as a child.

The story of a band of hippies grasping at the joys of life while dodging the draft for the controversial Vietnam War was a good fit for Forman. As a Czechoslovakian exile, he knew plenty about social upheaval. There’s a wealth of special features on the disc, including several short featurettes about various aspects of the production and a charming audio commentary by assistant director Michael Housman and lead Treat Williams and all point to Forman’s positive, open-minded approach to the film. In mixing established talents with less experienced performers and creating a positive, nurturing environment for all, he consequently embraced the revolutionary feel of the production.

Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D’Angelo lead a charismatic cast of characters through energetic renditions of the show’s lively tunes. The staging of songs as varied as “Hair,” “Where Do I Go,” and “I Got Life” is greatly helped by Twyla Tharp's innovative choreography. She worked well with a mix of dancers from her troupe and non-dancers cast for the film to build a mood of spontaneous energy that feels organic to both location and set-bound surroundings. That pulsing vibe is punctuated with stand-out vocal performances by Cheryl Barnes and Nell Carter who lend little bursts of star power to an essentially communal production.

1979 was a decade away from the times reflected in the original off and then on Broadway musical. While the stage production reflected the fury and passion of a movement in progress, Forman’s film found more whimsy in the hippy dippy lifestyle. That feeling is in opposition to the intensity of early stage productions which you can see in this performance from the 1969 Tony awards ceremony. The performances in this medley of songs from the show are grittier, funkier, and full of revolutionary fury. This is a unified group of young people who are rebelling because they believe in a better system and a brighter future. That’s a big contrast to the frolicking fun in the park that characterizes much of Forman’s film.

This is not to say that the adaptation doesn’t have its own powerful feeling of rebellion. It isn’t just sex, drugs, and play for Williams and his merry band of freaks. In an acid trip dream sequence that could only happen in a film, Forman with his own understanding of society in upheaval creates a tableau of giddy surreal happenings in which a pregnant Beverly d’Angelo soaring elegantly through the air is only a small part of the wildness.

Slightly removed from the times it reflected, Forman’s vision is in many ways removed from the show’s original feeling, but that distance gives it a timeless feel. It isn't just a comment on the past; it also draws out the core values in its revolutionary message which lit the fire in the first place.

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

Jul 1, 2020

On Blu-ray: Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint in The Stalking Moon (1969)

I went into the western thriller The Stalking Moon (1969) knowing nothing about it and came out the other side feeling unsettled. It is of its time in the deep certainty it shows in its morals, which can make it a difficult watch. The film recently made its Blu-ray debut on Warner Archive.

The Stalking Moon opens with a group of Army officers shooting into the air to waken a tribe of nomadic Apaches. As the men proceed to line up the abruptly roused group like cattle, a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) in the group speaks to attract their attention. They learn that she was kidnapped a decade ago and the silent boy beside her is her son (Noland Clay).

Frightened and barely able to speak, the woman identifies herself as Sarah Carver and begs to be taken away quickly, as she fears Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), the notorious warrior who has fathered her child will come to harm her and take away their son. Sam Varner (Gregory Peck), a retiring Army scout, decides to take them with him to his ranch, where she can work as his cook. While they make it to his home in safety, Sam’s longtime friend, the half-Indian Nick Tana (Robert Forster) comes to warn him that Salvaje has been tracking him and that he has left a trail of bodies behind him in his rage-infused quest to find his son.

There were things in this film I found difficult to stomach that I could accept to a degree as an accurate depiction of the times, from the way the Native people were treated in the opening scene, to the assumption among the white people that Sarah’s young son would do better with them. Salvaje, who is presented as a speechless brute, was more upsetting. All that is revealed of him is that he is a killer. There is no character development or even more than a fleeting glance at his face.

As Salvaje rolls around on the ground with Peck in the climactic battle, dressed in a long vest made of bear fur, it is clear that we are meant to view him as an animal. Even coming out of decades of films with insulting Native stereotypes, this struck me as especially unpleasant. I haven’t read the T.V. Olsen book upon which the film was based, so I don’t know how much of this perspective comes from the filmmakers, but it is definitely enforced by them. I found this hard to understand, as director Robert Mulligan and Peck had worked together so effectively on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Overall, The Stalking Moon is well-crafted and solidly-acted, with stunning scenery, but ultimately it is lackluster. Some of the best thrillers have voiceless villains and protagonists, but when so many of the key characters are that way a film needs to be exceedingly well-made to work. You begin to fully understand how dull the film is when Forster appears at the halfway point adding much-needed life to the proceedings with his wisecracking and lively patter. After enjoying a scene where he playfully attempts to teach Sarah’s son how to count in English, I wished I could have seen his story instead or perhaps get some insight into that little boy with the soulful eyes once he develops his own voice.

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