Sep 29, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

As the pandemic took hold, I thought that I would listen to podcasts less often because I wouldn't be relying on them so much for entertainment en-route to the various responsibilities in my life. I've found the opposite to be true: I actually listen more now, because I love how they connect me to the rest of the world. The episodes that reached me this month were not only interesting and informative, but they lifted my spirits. I have never felt such gratitude for all these varied programs have to offer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. All titles link to the specific episode:

Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!

Malcolm McDowell: Part 1

September 14, 2020

When listening to this episode, it is immediately clear why Malcolm McDowell required two parts for his guest appearance. Blazing with energy at 77-years-old, the English actor is lively, profane, and hilarious as he rips through stories about his life as a performer and his love of movies. He seems to have remembered everything he’s ever done, everyone he’s ever known, every film he’s ever seen, and all of it in the finest detail. This star doesn’t require lines to be an impeccable entertainer.


Micheaux Mission

Come Back Charleston Blue (1972)

August 25, 2020

The upbeat vibe and satisfying chemistry of Micheaux Mission hosts Len Webb and Vincent Williams has become a reliable mood lifter for me. I’ve enjoyed working my way through the back episodes of this podcast  with the core goal of discussing “every Black feature film ever released.” One of the most amusing aspects of this podcast for me is how much these two talk about classic television. I think they’d be great doing a show focused on their love for that! They start discussing the film at about the 40 minute mark, but their early discussions/fan email readings are always a lot of fun. Come Back Charleston Blue is the sequel to the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem and here the hosts’ verdict is that it isn’t as strong as the first film, but their discussion about the follow-up is thought provoking.


BBC Radio: The Film Programme

Luc Roeg on Walkabout

July 23, 2020

Host Antonia Quirk has a deeply evocative conversation with Luc Roeg, son of director Nicolas Roeg, about his experiences as a child actor in his father’s film, Walkabout (1971). Roeg clearly remembers his child’s perspective of being on set, from his embarrassment in performing a nude scene to his annoyance that he had to work on his lines while his siblings played. It seems to have been a positive experience for him overall as his tone is for the most part affectionate and nostalgic. This is a quick listen; their talk is in the first ten minutes of the episode.



Barbara Kopple/ Ida Lupino + Maya Deren (Overlooked Auteurs #1)

August 20, 2020

The highlight of this episode is an interview with documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA [1976], American Dream [1990]) in which she provides a fascinating perspective on her films and the relationships she developed while making them. A discussion of Ida Lupino and Maya Deren later in the episode is the first in a series in which hosts Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen plan to learn more about the work of female directors. I was unsettled that in their chronological journey they entirely skipped the varied work of the silent era, not to mention the trailblazing work of Dorothy Arzner, but their discussion was interesting. It’s a start.


The American Cinematheque Show

Haunted House of Gothic Horror

September 3, 2020

In its extremely entertaining second episode, the American Cinematheque offers up new interviews with Barbara Crampton and Joe Dante and classic clips featuring insights from stars and filmmakers of classic gothic horror films including Gloria Stuart, Vincent Price, Andr√© De Toth, Roger Corman, Robert Wise, Nelson Gidding, Peter Medak, and Stuart Gordon. It’s a roster overwhelming in its greatness. The juxtaposition of archival footage and guests who can put it all into context is deeply compelling. There’s never a dull moment in this show. Crampton’s comments about working with director Stuart Gordon are especially enlightening and even touching.

Sep 23, 2020

On Blu-ray: Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940)

When I recently watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of the 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it had been many years since I last saw the film. Several minutes into reacquainting myself with it, I realized I had my hands clasped to my chest. I was reminded that it's such a suspenseful film, though you never hear anybody refer to it that way.

Enough time passes between my viewings of this version, that I constantly forget how much of its entertainment value is in the contrast between the fluffy costumes and high-toned manners and the barely concealed daggers and erotic tensions hidden in every word the characters speak. All these posh, wealthy people are either at battle with each other, madly courting, or as is often the case, both.

Austen’s novel about judgment, image, and hidden truths in high society, centering on the five lively daughters of the Bennett family who push against convention as they strive for happy, prosperous marriages has understandably been a popular choice for film adaptations over the years, but I’ve never found a version that captured those contrasts as well as this one. 

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are very different performers, but as Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett the stage actor and the MGM star are well-matched because they seem to understand the dueling contradictions of their characters and the world they live in so well.

They are joined by a miraculous cast. The talent is almost too much to process. From the older generation there is Edna May Oliver, Mary Boland, and Edmund Gwenn. The high-energy younger cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel, Marsha Hunt, and the actress whose wasted career potential I mourn for thanks to HUAC, the butter-voiced Karen Morley. I have special respect for Frieda Inescort as the snobbish, but sharp-witted Miss Bingley, who manages to fling out the wickedest of barbs motionless but for the tiniest movement of her lips.

It’s the busiest, most vibrant tableau of social drama and the romances that either blossom in spite of it all or because the barricades make it more exciting. Lavish MGM production values add to the pleasure. The gowns and hats are in themselves a worthy spectacle. Of course they are not at all period appropriate, but then the plot also draws selectively from the novel. It's Hollywood.

With a cast that size, director Robert Z. Leonard must have felt as much like a traffic cop as a filmmaker, but he pulled all those varied characters together so that it looked effortless. It's a true classic.

Special features on the disc, which have been brought over from other releases of the film, include a trailer for the film, the World War II era short Eyes of the Navy and a the cartoon The Fishing Bear.

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

Sep 17, 2020

Bizarre Streaming Picks for the Pandemic Mind

As I’ve looked to occupy myself at home over the past several months, I’ve found comfort in the many moods of cinema. Cheerful flicks for a crummy mood, horror movies to get my blood pumping, and long films because I don’t have a lot of places to go and that has freed up a lot of time.

Going deeper into this strange time though, I’ve found myself seeking out weird movies: both old favorites and new experiences. I guess my feeling is that bizarre times call for corresponding cinema. 

I’ve been enjoying the ride and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’m sharing the movies I watched on the Criterion Channel, though I have also noted other places you can stream these films when possible. Most of them can also be rented from the usual suspects:


The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

The only film written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) is just as bizarre and inventive as you would expect. A boy who objects to his life of routine and parental control imagines a frightening, but vibrant world ruled by his strict piano teacher.


8 ½ (1963) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHBO MaxKanopy

Federico Fellini’s quasi-autobiographical tale of a film director surrounded by chaos offers the perfect example of how one must give in to the carnival and abandon the fantasy of an orderly life.


Alice (1988) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHoopla, Kanopy

Surrealist filmmaker, puppeteer, and animator Jan ҆vankmajer’s nightmare-inducing take on the story of Alice in Wonderland is a perfectly fascinating plunge down the rabbit hole, but maybe not for most kids.

Black Lizard/ Kurotokage (1962) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

While I prefer the more devious vibe of the 1968 Black Lizard, an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s classic crime novel, this light, absurd musical take on the story is a lot of fun. The famous detective Akechi pursues the notorious criminal Black Lizard while showing himself to be a criminal of the heart.


Cab Calloway’s Hi Dee Ho (1934) [short]

The Criterion ChannelPrime

With his floppy forelock and alternately jittery and fluid dance movies, Cab Calloway always had an otherworldly air, like surrealism personified. He takes the crackling jazz of his sizzling band to another plane with his uniquely delirious and unpredictable style. The bland stiffs in the Cotton Club audience seem oblivious to the magic they are witnessing.


A Chairy Tale (1957) [short]

The Criterion ChannelKanopy, NFB

There’s a lot of wonder to be found in the work of Canadian filmmaker Norman MacLaren; take a look at his short films on the National Film Board of Canada website for plenty of pleasurable distraction. I’m especially fond of this stop motion fantasy though. Accompanied by the fanciful strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, a man struggles to sit on a chair which always slides away from him whenever he approaches. It’s a silly, but touching story which is ultimately about mutual respect.

Sep 2, 2020

On Blu-ray: A Garland and Rooney Double-Header, Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy

When I finished up my double feature viewing of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films Strike up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943) (both newly available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive), I felt a familiar mixture of exhilaration and confusion. There’s so much to love about these classic musicals: the top-shelf tunes, entertaining supporting cast, uplifting production numbers designed by Busby Berkeley, and the transcendent marvel that is Judy Garland. 

The everlasting point of confusion for me is Mickey Rooney. I wonder how many classic film fans appreciate Mickey Rooney more than they enjoy him? It’s clear that he had talent; I’m not entirely immune to his zest, but don’t think I’ll ever get him completely. I’m sure part of it is that some of his humor and vigor haven’t aged well, but it’s also hard for me to pay him much mind when Garland is there busting your heart open with those smooth tones and soulful brown eyes. He seems like a cheerful wind-up toy in comparison.

That confusion has always affected my feelings about Garland and Rooney films. They have an undeniable chemistry, but I’m always baffled that the miraculous Ms. Judy would be mooning over this self-absorbed, oblivious guy. I know it is very much of the times that she sits there cheering him on while sitting on her own monster talent and intellect, but knowing isn’t everything. 

I suppose it says a lot for these films that despite all that, they always leave me happy. Strike up the Band is rightfully most famous for a dream sequence that features an orchestra of stop-motion figures with fruits and nuts for both their heads and instruments. The moment is the product of aspiring band director Jimmy’s (Rooney) imagination: he is using the contents of an overflowing fruit bowl to explain his musical plans to his friend Mary (Garland). The scene is full of bizarre images, like a walnut-headed figure playing a nutcracker like a harp and a line of pear-noggined musicians playing pear halves like violins. An early career George Pal designed the number, which could stand on its own as an entertaining short film. 

This unusual scene happens early in a musical that is otherwise full of that “let’s put on a show” vigor. Thanks to Berkeley, the dance numbers really pop. His standard technique of using dancers to make mesmerizing patterns gets a burst of energy from his youthful dancers. They’re all adorable, though it is really something seeing all those white kids attempting Cuban flair in the Do the La Conga! number. 

The then hugely popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (most famous now for his key role in King of Jazz [1930]) appears with his orchestra and even acts opposite Rooney in a few scenes. 

Though it also has its share of big production number flair, Girl Crazy (1943) is for the most part a lower-key affair. This is my favorite Rooney and Garland film because it is bursting with Gershwin standards. Having But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm, and Embraceable You in one movie would be enough to give it classic status, but the topper is the magnificently meandering Bidin’ My Time, with Garland and the The King's Men and chorus, and is practically an anti-production number with its easy pace and lanky cowboy dancers. 

I also enjoyed the presence of character actor Rags Ragland, who shows his burlesque past in the way he adapts smoothly and easily to the performance style of his costars. He had an especially pleasing chemistry with Garland.

Tommy Dorsey and his band are lively presence throughout the film. Director Norman Taurog perfectly frames the fresh, joyful energy of the trombonist and his musicians. The group plays for June Allyson in the opening nightclub number as she croons Treat Me Rough. They are especially magnetic though in the Fascinating Rhythm number, where they all look like they are having the time of their lives.

Both discs feature introductions by Mickey Rooney and theatrical trailers. Strike up the Band also has a commentary by John Frick, the comedy short Hollywood Daredevils, the cartoon The Early Bird Dood It, a Stereo remix of I Got Rhythm, and audio of a Bronco Busters outtake. The Girl Crazy disc includes the Pete Smith comedy short Wedding Bills, the cartoon Romeo in Rhythm, a Stereo remix of Do the La Conga, and audio features including a Leo is on the Air Radio Promo, Millions for Defense and a 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. 

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