Dec 29, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up


Little Miss Movies Podcast 
December 1, 2020 

I was both charmed and fascinated by this family podcast hosted by Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice, her husband Joshua Fialkov and their precocious fifth-grader daughter Gable. In each episode the trio discusses the classic films Gable’s parents have, in their words, forced her to watch. Fortunately she is clearly a willing victim. Rice and Fialkov are adept at asking the right questions and Gable is an insightful young film fan. Her ultimate take on Citizen Kane was on-the-mark and a revelation to me after years of watching the film.
The Treatment 
December 8, 2020 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this discussion about Stanley Kubrick between host Elvis Mitchell and author David Mikics is the pair’s efforts to determine the filmmaker’s style. What is the common thread in his diverse works? It’s a thoughtful and engrossing conversation.
Maltin On Movies 
October, 9 2020 

The beloved and respected film scholar and Wesleyan University cinema professor Jeanine Basinger has known Leonard Maltin since he was a teen. Because of that long history, whenever she is a guest on his podcast they have a charming habit of sharing each other’s stories. There’s all sorts of fascinating tidbits in this episode, including Basinger’s experiences hosting Joan Crawford at Wesleyan and the time she had to hire three stenographers to translate Kay Francis’ juicy diaries.
The Old Soul Movie Podcast 
November 27, 2020 

I enjoyed this affectionate tribute to Eartha Kitt by hosts Jack and Emma Oremus. They do a great job covering her turbulent childhood, varied career, and plain-spoken activism. I appreciated the way they nailed so many of the unique traits that made her special.
Switchblade Sisters 

This discussion of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) with director Zeuna Durra is deeply satisfying because she weaves the personal with the professional beautifully in her awestruck assessment of this mysterious film. I also felt painfully her frustration at losing her kids' interest in classic film after showing them Disney flicks.

Dec 24, 2020

Deanna 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 22, 2020

On Blu-ray: The Glorious Quartet of Loy, Powell, Harlow, and Tracy in Libeled Lady (1936)

The first time I watched Libeled Lady (1936), in the midst of my stunned teenage discovery of Jean Harlow, was on a well-worn VHS I’d borrowed from the library. What a gigantic shift it was to see it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive; it looks and sounds so sharp and clean it feels like a different film.

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrasting personas of the cast in this lightly entertaining comedy. There’s the crisp and amusing William Powell and Myrna Loy, already comfortable playing off each other in a cool, but pleasant manner as they would in several films. Juxtaposed with this is the earthier appeal of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, who are less suited to each other, but similar in the way they always project an aura of honesty.

This is a film that rests on its star power. For the most part, with the notable exception of Walter Connolly, playing Loy’s exasperated father, these four carry Libeled Lady. Loy plays a carefree socialite who finds herself the victim of false reporting. Tracy is the guilty reporter who in his desperation to avoid litigation enlists Powell to trap Loy in a real scandal to negate the false one. He convinces his eternally frustrated fiancĂ© Harlow to marry Powell, temporarily of course, as a part of his scheme.

Though her screen time is brief compared to her fellow stars, Harlow steals Libeled Lady. She’s effortlessly mesmerizing, playing big and loud one moment only to dial it down with subtle, sweet moments of silent acting, like a charming scene where she realizes Powell is more honorable than she thought. It’s heartbreaking to realize this was her last great role, with only Personal Property (1937) and a partially completed appearance in Saratoga (1937) to come before her death at age twenty-six. Here she appears ready to take her comedy chops to another level, a skilled comedienne who endured the brutal public scrutiny of learning onscreen only to become the best in the game.

As much as I love the ease of Powell and Loy together, I enjoyed the sizzling chemistry between real life lovers Powell and Harlow even more. Their emotional connection translated to the screen, much like Bogart and Bacall. There is a warmth and shared humor between them that comes through in their few scenes together, even when they’re supposed to be at odds with each other. It’s fascinating to imagine what kinds of movies more Powell and Harlow pairings could have produced.

Libeled Lady is solid entertainment with all the elements in place: a witty script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, smooth direction by Jack Conway, and a quartet of stars working at their peak. It was a pleasure to be able to see and hear it anew with such clarity.

Special features on the disc include the comedy short Keystone Hotel, an MGM short New Shoes, the cartoon Little Cheeser, audio for the Leo is on the Air radio promo, and a theatrical trailer

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

Dec 16, 2020

On Olive Films Signature Blu-ray: Ford, Wayne, and O'Hara United for the First Time in Rio Grande (1950)

Rio Grande (1950) marks an interesting point in the careers of both director John Ford and star John Wayne. It was a time when the men were maturing into their later careers, where they would both try variations on their well-established images. It’s the last film of Ford’s loosely arranged cavalry trilogy (including Fort Apache [1948] and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949]). It wasn’t a work of great consequence for Ford, and he felt the cavalry milieu was played out, but he couldn’t help lending his magic to even a tale as well-worn as this one. In a new features-packed Olive Signature Blu-ray release of the film, I had the opportunity to go a little deeper into the production of the film and appreciate its complexities. 

This was the first film of the legendary five film screen partnership between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (they’d both already signed for The Quiet Man [1952], but hadn’t started production), and from the beginning their chemistry was profound. They play an estranged husband and wife: Wayne is Captain Kirby, who leads his men at an isolated cavalry outpost, O’Hara comes to him after a long separation, because her son (Claude Jarman Jr.) has enlisted after failing to make the grade in school and she worries for his safety. 

The family drama is the heart of the film, while the action comes from the threatened attack of hostile Apaches who force the soldiers to attempt to escort the women and children at the base to a safer location. Even understanding the different mindset at the time the film was made, I still struggle with the way the Native people here are portrayed as faceless and vicious. That said, my perception of these characters was forever changed when I interviewed former child actress Karolyn Grimes several years ago (she’s the one that says “Uncle Timmy” and rings the church bell). She remembered being fascinated by how indigenous actors loved playing cards and drinking soda pop between takes. 

As a sort of seasoning to these sequences, there are also several cowboy-tinged musical interludes by the Sons of Pioneers group, beautiful location shooting in the Moab, Utah setting in the Professor Valley, and an astonishing scene of stunt riding featuring Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. The latter is a remarkable sequence in which the men leap up to stand on top of two horses, a foot on each, and ride them chariot style, even clearing a six foot jump (in an interview included in the special features, Johnson is nonchalant about the dangerous stunt, saying he had a great foothold). As a counterbalance to this athletic show stopping, Victor McLaglen is reliably cheerful and crusty as a sergeant who could probably be cut entirely out of the film, but what would a Ford western be without him? 

You can see how the film might have felt simultaneously lacking in story and a little busy at the time of its release, but it’s all done so well and with such remarkable people that it nevertheless stands as a classic. 

One of the most impressive things about Olive Signature releases is the careful curation of disc special features. The company always finds a perfect balance of addressing the elements of a film that need further exploration without overwhelming with too many features or including items that are of little value. There’s a typically satisfying array of offerings included in the Rio Grande release. 

Claude Jarman Jr. is one of the underrated storytellers of old Hollywood, and here in a brief interview he demonstrates his remarkable recall as he shares stories from his career overall and his role as Wayne’s son. Wayne’s real son and business associate Patrick Wayne offers a more personal perspective about his father’s experience on the set, in addition to his own memories about working on location. I was most appreciative to hear industry veteran and New Mexico-born Native Raoul Trujillo’s thoughts on the portrayal of Native Americans in the film; this feature helped me to unpack my still-conflicted feelings about the way they were depicted in this 70-year-old film. Other special features include a retrospective of the music in the film by Marc Wanamaker, a video essay by Tag Gallagher, an essay in the disc’s booklet by Paul Andrew Hutton, a theatrical trailer, and a vintage featurette about the film hosted by a very young Leonard Maltin which is valuable because it features interviews with several of the stars before they passed. 

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a disc for review.

Dec 14, 2020

A Classic Movie Blog on Instagram


I've noticed that there have been a lot more of you dropping by in the past year (welcome!), so I wanted to make sure you all know that A Classic Movie Blog is also on Instagram.

Come join me, Bob, and Rita here!

Dec 9, 2020

Holiday Delight on Blu-ray: It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

For over ten years on this site I have been banging the drum every holiday season about It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). I never felt like they got enough love, though awareness of these charming films appears to have grown at a steady pace. Now all three are available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive; a delightful gift to receive at the end of a turbulent year. 

Of the three, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) has probably enjoyed the highest profile over the years, being one of the best films of director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Sam Raphaelson, and blessed with a high profile cast including Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan. It also helps that the film was loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail (1998), which led to a lasting trickle of interest in the original. 

Set in a Budapest gift shop during the holiday season, The Shop Around the Corner follows the lives of its employees, from the marriage troubles of the shop owner (Morgan) to the anxiety of a new delivery boy. At the center of it all are Sullavan and Stewart, employees of the store who are constantly at odds with each other, but also secret pen pals who are falling in love. 

If it weren’t for the Lubitsch/Raphaelson combo, it might seem silly how long it takes these characters to figure out a few clear truths. Instead, these commonplace, but deeply important and occasionally magical elements of human relationships are revealed with the light touch and subtle winking manner that gives a luster to anything these two create. 

Note: viewers who are sensitive to content involving attempted suicide might want to steer clear. There is a brief scene in which more is implied than seen, but which does have a strong emotional impact. 

Special features on the disc include A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound, a Screen Guild Players Radio Broadcast of the film's story from 1940 and a Lux Radio Theater Broadcast from 1941, and a theatrical trailer.
It Happened on 5th Avenue is another solid ensemble piece, though without the star power draw of The Shop Around the Corner. This does not mean that Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm are any less riveting in this story of making emotional connections across class, generations, and time. Moore is Aloysius T. McKeever, a man without his own home who spends his winters in the Park Avenue mansion of the obscenely wealthy Michael O’Connor (Ruggles) while the ruthless real estate magnate is at his country property. This year is different though, he picks up a few other people in need of shelter, including recently evicted veteran Jim (an energetic and charismatic DeFore), a family with a newborn, and eventually the residents of the mansion (though incognito) O’Connor, his ex-wife Mary (Harding), and his desperately lonely daughter Trudy (Storm). 

These eleven drifters, be it physically, emotionally, or both, live under the moral leadership of McKeever, who seems better suited to oversee operations at the cavernous home than its oblivious owner. The community and mutual aid they develop together has special meaning in this year of isolation, with many experiencing loss of crucial resources, and feeling renewed outrage about the way the wealthiest hoard assets needed by the masses. These serious issues are approached firmly, but also with warmth, gentle humor, and a feeling of hope. That’s why while only one scene centers on Christmas, it is an essential holiday film. 

The disc also includes a 1947 Lux Theater broadcast of the film’s story.
My favorite of this trio is Holiday Affair, a quietly moving and humorous drama about a widow (Janet Leigh) struggling to move past the loss of her soldier husband. 

Leigh is Connie, a secret shopper who unknowingly costs salesman Steve (Robert Mitchum) his job. When she realizes her faux pas, she buys him lunch and they quickly form a bond. 

Connie has been dating the attentive Carl (Wendell Corey) for a couple of years, but the arrival of Steve throws her into confusion about what she truly desires. Connie’s son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) has no doubts about what he wants: an electric train for Christmas and Steve for his new father. 

Carl knows how to tend to Connie: he remembers what drink she likes and gifts her with clothing that suits her perfectly, but over the years he hasn’t come to understand her on as profoundly as Steve does with just a few meetings. He sees that Timmy has replaced his father as the head of the house and that Carl will never fit the bill because a ghost will always live with them. In a way Timmy knows that too, with the blunt, but honest perception of a child.  
Mitchum is beautifully receptive in this early role. As an actor he’s a great listener, and he demonstrates that ability in his scenes with Gebert, where his careful attention to the boy is both charming and deeply moving. He’s also a nice match with Leigh; they’re low key about their attraction, but you can sense the sizzle beneath the surface. 

While Steve is the catalyst for Connie to move on to a healthier life, she has a loving support system which has helped her to maintain a home and career. Graff Barnett and Esther Dale are unusually understanding and supportive as Connie’s parents. Gebert is lovely as her son: full of the desires of a young boy, but kind and considerate of his mother; he has the most charming lines in the film and he gets into the emotion of them with appealing gusto. It’s also nice that while Carl isn’t the man for Connie, he’s not made out to be a villain. He knows when to bend to her needs and he does so gracefully. 

This is a particularly nice holiday film because while it deals with loss and need, it does so gently and with a light touch. It’s Christmas spirit without the tear-jerking. 

Special features on the disc include a 1950 Lux Radio Theater production of the film’s story and a theatrical trailer.

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

Dec 4, 2020

On Blu-ray: Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge (1940)


Vivien Leigh made so few films that every opportunity to see her is a great pleasure. She achieved one of her best screen performances in Waterloo Bridge (1940). I recently watched the World War I-set romantic tragedy on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

Adapted from a Robert E. Sherwood play based on his own experiences, this version of the story followed a more gritty take from the pre-code era directed by James Whale and starring Mae Clarke, and preceded the less faithful color adaptation Gaby from 1956 starring Leslie Caron. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s slick, but emotionally wrenching 1940 adaptation benefits from its sympathetic leads and solid supporting performances by reliable character actors including Maria Ouspenskaya and C. Aubrey Smith. It is perfectly engineered studio filmmaking, but Leigh’s performance gives it guts. 

Leigh plays Myra Lester, a young ballet dancer in wartime London who struggles to adhere to her dance mistress’ (Ouspenskaya) strict rules. She meets army colonel Roy Cronin on Waterloo Bridge and quickly bonds with him as the pair shelter together during an air raid. Their courtship advances speedily to engagement, but then Roy is abruptly called to battle, so they cannot be married. Myra loses her job and can’t find more work in war ravaged London. 

When Myra receives a mistaken notice that Roy has died in battle, she wearily turns to prostitution to make ends meet. She eventually finds Roy has actually been a POW, and is both elated and devastated to be reunited with him. For a time she continues their relationship, but she fears for his reputation if her secret is discovered. 

One of the best things about Waterloo Bridge is the way the leads subvert the norms of this kind of story. Vivien Leigh’s Myra could have easily slipped into weepy melodramatic mannerisms, but she remains grounded, mostly due to her steady intensity, but also because instead of becoming sentimental, she always stays firmly in the reality of her predicament. Taylor’s character is written to be more compassionate than men typically are towards a woman in Myra’s situation, and he enhances that kindness with a sort of wonder in the magnificence of this woman he loves. For this reason, their connection feels real in a film where the plot tosses them around with brutal efficiency. 

It is ultimately a story of how easily those who are marginalized can be destroyed. Myra and Roy can’t be married because of a law about when marriages can be performed, and it seals her fate. Myra nearly starves because she has no family or husband to protect her and there are few opportunities for young women to find steady employment in wartime London. When Myra meets Roy’s mother, the wealthy older woman has no understanding of her vulnerability, she takes her existential distress as a personal insult. Likewise, Roy fails to see the struggles a woman like Myra must endure simply to survive; he has only known luxury and the privilege of being a man. As a result, an innocent woman is devoured by a society that fails to support her. 

While it all sounds unbearably bleak, the couple's relationship is charming, Leigh is mesmerizing, and it is a beautifully filmed production. It breaks your heart, but with great elegance. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and a radio production of the drama starring Norma Shearer in the role of Myra.

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

Dec 2, 2020

Book Review-- Steve McQueen: In His Own Words

I live for myself and answer to nobody. -Steve McQueen 

Steve McQueen: In His Own Words
Marshall Terrill
Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2020

Steve McQueen is known for having been a man of few words on the screen. That was partly because he had difficulty reading and memorizing his lines, but he also found little value in excessive chatter. In Steve McQueen: In His Own Words, an extensive new photographic tribute by Marshall Terrill, that tendency extends somewhat to his off-screen life. While the actor had strong opinions about his life and the world around him, for the most part he liked to keep to himself. 

The book is dominated by photos, each accompanied by a quote from McQueen, with the occasional aside from Terrill when clarification or a fact check is necessary. 

An interesting, sometimes unsettling story unfolds in the photos. McQueen was handsome and photogenic his entire life, but he often shows the trauma of an unsettled childhood. Many pictures show his first wife Neile beaming at him while he stars moodily into space, connected physically, but emotionally adrift. As he ages, his grizzled beard and sun-tanned skin seem to indicate a comfortable withdrawal from stardom and Hollywood life, but there’s always a little distance in those eyes.

McQueen’s childhood was almost feral at times. His father abandoned him and his young mother before he was a year old, and his mother was essentially unable to care for him, leaving him first with an elderly relative and then a reform school in Chino, California called Boys Republic. He spent his late teens riding the rails, a life without friends or family, full of violence, starvation, and uncertainty. It wasn’t until he settled in Greenwich Village and took up acting that McQueen begin to work towards stability. 

McQueen didn’t enjoy acting, but it gave him the money to buy a home, get married, and perhaps most importantly to him, fund his obsession with speed in the form of cars and motorcycles. These sentiments are repeated several times throughout the book, including his belief that women should be in service to men (he fumed for days when driver Cristabel Carlisle beat him in a car race), that he preferred a simple life, and that he preferred the company of regular men. 

While I learned a lot about McQueen here, by about fourth time there was a quote about his “old lady, kids, home, and food on the table” I began to lose interest. As fascinating as his rags to riches story can be, there’s ultimately not much of a story to tell here. He pulled himself up from grinding poverty, had an unusual, hugely successful career, even starting his own film company, had varied and sometimes scandalous relations with his three wives, and made sure he helped boys in the same position he had been in, but as a man he was as simple as he claimed. 

The photos are gorgeous, telling a compelling visual story, though again there are many that look about the same, precisely because McQueen led a simple life, often shirtless in white pants or zipped into a racing suit. Still, this is for the most part a fascinating visual journey and one that digs deep into what made the actor the man that he was. I am also aware that there are plenty of McQueen lovers who could never get enough of him shirtless in white pants. The book is a must-have splurge for devoted fans of the actor, and perhaps less essential for more casual devotees.

Many thanks to Dalton Watson Fine Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 1, 2020

Cary Grant Comes Home for the Weekend Festival: Making My First Video Essay and Chatting on a Panel with Creators

One of the best things I've done since the pandemic has changed life so dramatically was to learn how to make a video essay. 

I did it for the Cary Grant Comes Home for the Weekend Festival, a wonderful event that usually takes place in the actor's hometown of Bristol, UK, but was online for the first time this year. 

My video was part of a partnership between the festival and Will DeGravio's Video Essay Podcast. This year's festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Grant's first voyage to the United States. Participants were tasked with creating a video essay exploring the concept of journeys. 

I immediately knew I had to discuss Grant's emotional journey in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), something I wanted to do so badly that I humbled myself and asked my kid how to make a video. This is the result (to view the whole screen, click on the title link below the video):


Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS: A Journey to Love from Kendahl Cruver on Vimeo.

While I have a lot to learn, I had a lot of fun making this. If you have any interest in making your own video essays, go for it! Once you get deep into the process, it can be addictively fun. 

I was so impressed with the creativity of my fellow participants, a collection of bright, fascinating people from around the world. We all had the opportunity to talk about our work with DeGravio and festival director Dr. Charlotte Crofts on a panel that took place during the festival. Here is a compilation with all of our videos and that conversation edited together (to view the whole screen, click on the title link below the video):

The Journeys of Cary Grant: An Audiovisual Celebration — Full Screening and Q&A from Will DiGravio on Vimeo.

You can also watch the videos individually here. I am looking forward to making more video essays, which I will share here. If you have made a video essay you'd like to share, please put a link in the comments!