Oct 22, 2021

On Blu-ray: Treat Williams in a Break-Out Performance, Sort of, in Prince of the City (1981)


 

Prince of the City (1981) isn’t the cop movie I expected, but in these times, it was the cop movie that made sense. I recently saw the film for the first time on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

The begins like a typical police flick, with chaotic drug busts, joking banter between cocky officers, and undercover men swaggering around in belted-leather coats and bell bottom suit pants. We are introduced to an elite narcotics squad, a group so respected that these “Princes of the City” are allowed to do their work with little supervision. Unsurprisingly, that leads them to engage in unethical behavior, sometimes to get the job done, but also to line their pockets. 

Treat Williams stars as Detective Danny Ciello, the man who changes the narrative from free-form policing to the ugly business of facing consequences. He agrees to go undercover to fight corruption, but quickly finds that he and the men he works with are too much a part of that corruption to avoid scrutiny. He finds himself in the position of being forced to betray those he loves the most. 

I understand why Treat Williams was nominated for both “Best” and “Worst” actor for this role. Apparently his charismatic turn in Hair (1979) played a role in winning him the part, and he shows that same loose, irresistible vibe here. There are moments though when he goes over the top and it can be taken as either too much or the intense, but honest emotions of a man who is heartbroken, frightened and trapped. I think both are true. 

As charming as Williams is, this film wasn’t the breakthrough role that led to true stardom. He was certainly deserving of that, but 1981 was the start of an era where the men at the top of the box office didn’t emote so darn much. He was not a Stallone or Schwarzenegger; he was even more tender than Harrison Ford. Of course, he has had a fascinating and enduring career, but seeing him in this, you wonder what bigger stardom could have brought him. 

The rest of the cast is full of rich, realistic characters. Some of them, like Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and Lindsay Crouse were just at the start of careers full of intriguing roles. Everyone here feels real. You believe they are anxious, but strong policeman’s wives and bureaucrats who are determined, but often lacking in understanding. Most compelling are the corrupt cops, who have a tighter bond with each other than even their own families. They sit close on lawn chairs, in intimate conversation, swilling beer out of amber bottles: manly but connected in a way more familiar to female friendships. 

While much about the outcome of the story is inevitable, and in some ways easy to see without knowing the details of the real story upon which it was based, the increasing tension is expertly communicated by director Sidney Lumet. He increasingly narrows his focus, amplifying the feeling of Williams’ isolation and fear and the terror of men facing the consequences of their actions. In doing so, he’s always in touch with the emotions of his characters, men who take pride in hiding their emotions, which is why the film feels so revelatory. 

The featurette Prince of the City: The Real Story is a part of the special features on the disc and it helps to put the film in perspective. A lot of the people portrayed in the film are interviewed here, including the man Detective Ciello was portraying, former Detective Robert Leuci. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 15, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Wild Life of a Ben-Hur (1925) Star in This is Francis X. Bushman


 

Before I watched this fascinating Blu-ray release about actor Francis X. Bushman, all I truly knew about him was that he’d starred as Messala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Other than that, I had a vague idea of what he looked like and was intrigued by the novelty of his middle initial. Now, thanks to the documentary This is Francis X. Bushman, I’ve had a brisk, but thorough crash course on this charismatic man. 

The film, directed by long-time Bushman scholar Lon Davis is part of a new set from the Flicker Fusion label at Flicker Alley. While the documentary is only an hour, the set has a variety of special features, including an informative introduction by Davis, an extensive image gallery, a 1957 episode of the radio show Suspense: The City That Was featuring Bushman late in his career, a trailer for Ben-Hur (1925), and perhaps most importantly, four Bushman films, two of them fragments (The Thirteenth Man, [1913] and The Marriage Clause [1926]), the others fully intact (Dawn and Twilight [1914] and Two Men and a Girl [Love Conquers All] [1911]). 

Bushman’s grandson, film industry veteran Chris Bushman narrates the documentary, and while he wasn’t born to narrate, it was interesting to get a more intimate perspective at times. That family involvement does affect the objectivity of the film, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines: Bushman’s wives did not think much of him as a husband. Lon Davis’ introduction includes more specific stories of the romantic wreckage he left in his wake. The film is also greatly enhanced by recordings of the elder Bushman dramatically recalling memories of his past. 

Aside from mishaps with the women he knew, Bushman led a chaotic, but essentially good life. He was a romantic idol in the early silent years, often paired with Beverly Bayne (who would be his second wife) and one of the most popular film actors in the world. Ben-Hur came at the end of his peak star years, but his career was far from over at that point. A combination of a nostalgic audience and industry respect kept him in work for the rest of his life, with television roles, character parts in movies, and radio show guest appearances which demonstrated that he was not one of those silent movie stars sunk by an unsatisfactory voice. 

It’s a good thing he did manage to keep making money, because as the documentary reveals, he was also very good at spending it. His is an interesting story though, because you can see how he could have been heading for disaster and dying in poverty, but he always managed to pull ahead. It’s an odd combination of luck, charisma, and willingness to try new things if it keeps the cash flowing that kept him afloat. 

The films in the set reveal a complex performer. An early body building fan, he had a beefy action hero allure (before that was really a thing), but he was capable of being sensitive, romantic, and vulnerable. To be able to all that and take on a stunt like the fast-pace four-horse chariot race in Ben-Hur is phenomenal. 

I came away from this set appreciating Francis X. Bushman and impressed by how much I’d learned. It’s a shame that so many of his silents are now gone, but what remains is fascinating. 


Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 13, 2021

Book Review--Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge

 


Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge 
Joseph McBride 
Columbia University Press, 2021 

One of the greatest strengths of Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge is that author Joseph McBride was able to speak to so many key sources over several decades. This includes several conversations with Wilder and the especially valuable insights of Paul Diamond, son of Wilder’s frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and a screenwriter himself. 

This exploration of Wilder’s work focuses on influences in his early life in Europe and his working relationship with Diamond and Charles Brackett, the two key collaborators in his Hollywood career. McBride also dives into public perception of the director and writer. His primary argument: while Billy Wilder has long been known as a cynic, he’s actually a disappointed romantic. 

McBride was wise to focus on Wilder’s partnerships with Brackett and Diamond, because he would not have had a career without their input, not to mention the language help they offered this non-native English speaker. He digs into the contrast between the men, from the conservative Brackett to the more liberal and open-minded Diamond. While it is clear that Wilder is the driving force of both partnerships, both men had their own brilliance, though it seemed to come out chiefly with Billy. 

Wilder scrambled to survive as a reporter in pre-war Europe and struggled to learn the language of his adopted country when he came to America. McBride explores the filmmaker’s feelings of being an outsider due to these circumstances, his survivor’s guilt as a refugee (he never got over his failure to convince his mother to flee Europe in the World War II years), and how it molded his work. He also dives into Wilder’s love for American culture and how he combined it with his own Weimar sophistication and world experience. 

This is an engrossing and revealing exploration of one of the best Hollywood filmmakers. It offers intimate insight and a welcome in-depth look at Wilder’s less celebrated later films, such Avanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978), in addition to his more popular early classics. By focusing on the work, McBride explains a lot about the man. 


Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 8, 2021

On Blu-ray: Loy and Powell Team Up a Fourth Time as the Charles' in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)


This fourth entry of the Thin Man series is the second in which Nick and Nora are parents. Their little Nicky is adorably picking up all of Daddy’s bad habits. It’s no surprise given that in the last film he was a giggling infant in the middle of a murderous country house melee. I recently revisited this enjoyable, if minor entry in the Charles saga on a newly-released Warner Archive Blu-ray. 

While Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) isn’t among the best of the series, the quality is so consistent that any entry is a good time. Here Nick works to solve a murder at the race track, which ends up leading him all over San Francisco with Nora and sometimes little Nicky in tow. 

Like always, the spice is between the lines in the Thin Man series. The running joke of their open marriage is this time referred to in the many instances where Nora is mistaken for Nick’s down low girlfriend. It’s a neat trick: readers of the novel get their wink, while those not in the know can take it as a comment on Mrs. Charles being an especially dishy wife. 

And she is, and they are a remarkably happy screen couple, for the most part because they understand each other so well. Nora brings her husband home with the shake of a cocktail shaker and she knows that showing up in macho spaces like a crime scene or a wrestling match will strengthen her bond with Nick. He on the other hand is aware that his wife should never be excluded if she feels she should be present. 

As usual, the cast has some lively characters, though not quite the bizarre roster as in past entries. As the Charles’ domestic, Louise Beavers demonstrates how she made more of an essentially thankless maid role than anyone; it makes you pine for the comedy series she could have had on her own. In an early role Donna Reed is fresh and young, but plenty wise and lacking the primness of many starlets in a typical role. Sam Levene has a great stink face and excellent comic timing as the often flustered, but always competent Lieutenant Abrams. 

There’s always that one memorable scene in a Thin Man movie, this time there’s two. One is a raucous wrestling match where Nora remains adorably elegant and polite. The other is a much weirder set-up in a seafood restaurant where the waiter insists that everyone order sea bass, before the Charles pooch Asta starts a wild brawl. 

It’s a fun flick. If you’ve enjoyed one Thin Man movie, it’s well worth seeing all of them. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer, the cartoon The Goose Goes South, and the vintage short The Tell-Tale Heart


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 6, 2021

Spooky Streaming: Ten Great Horror Shorts and Streaming Recommendations for Halloween Season



The spooky season is my favorite time of year, but I watch horror films of all kinds throughout the year. For that reason, there aren't many classic feature films in the genre that I haven't seen. However, I have found that there are plenty of great shorts that I've yet to see. Some of them are scary, some are a little funny, a few are even a little of both. Here are some of my favorites (and if you are in the mood for a full-length horror flick, check my streaming selections at the bottom of the post):

   

The Tell-tale Heart (1953) 

This creepy take on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale is my favorite horror short. I watch it every year around this time. The combination of the stark, surreal animation, discordant music, and James Mason's hushed, but intense narration are chilling in a harshly modern way. Now on the National Film Registry, it was a film ahead of its time.


   

 Cross Roads (1955) 

I love the cool vibe of this low-key British short starring Christopher Lee as a man who seeks revenge on the cad responsible for his sister's death.

   

They Caught the Ferry (1948) 

A couple racing through the countryside on a motorcycle to catch a ferry encounters a terrifying supernatural force in this short directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr [1932]). For most of the brief running time the film plays like a high-speed thriller, which makes its switch to horror all the more frightening. This version doesn't have English subtitles, though they are not necessary to understand the film. If you want subtitles, this version has them; it also has an added soundtrack, which is good, but I prefer the tension of the music-free original.

   

How a Mosquito Operates (1912) 

While the IMDb classifies this Windsor McCay short as a thriller, it's obviously a horror film. It demonstrates how mosquitos are actually just little vampires flying around to terrify and annoy us. The repetition of movement and jerky style of early animation makes it extra creepy.

   

The Merry Skeleton/Le squelette joyeux (1897) 

This early short from French film pioneers the Lumière Brothers is interesting because with the music the image of bones flying off and on a skeleton is amusing, but in silence, the one minute film is a bit unsettling.

   

The Haunted House (1908) 

Played for laughs, this French short from Pathé studios is full of early special effects. Though no longer impressive, these cinematic tricks are still amusing.

   

The X-Rays/The X-Ray Fiend (1897) 

It's under a minute, but this short about a couple who appear to become skeletons when an X-ray machine is pointed at them is another amusing look at the early use of special effects. At the time it was made, X-rays had only been in existence for a couple of years, so the concept and the way the technology worked were likely still mysterious to most audiences.


 

The Devil in a Convent (1899) 

I had to include a Georges Méliès short, because the French film pioneer was the first major filmmaker to develop the concept of screen horror. His ghoulish sense of humor essentially set the template for the genre.

 

Spook Sport (1940) 

For the avant-garde fan, this self-proclaimed "film-ballet" is an abstract version of the Danse Macabre featuring the music of Saint-Saëns. Canadian animator Norman McLaren got this effect by drawing directly on 35mm film. 


 

Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre Halloween Film Strip 

This last short is actually a collection of images with musical accompaniment. Once again using Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns, it is a series of spooky scenes meant to evoke the Halloween season. The YouTube comments on this one are a must-read. It seems a lot of people got the pants scared off of them watching this presentation at school as kids when it rattled through the film projector each year.


There's also a lot of great classic horror flicks streaming this month! My recommendations: 

The Criterion Channel is featuring an eight film collection of Universal horror classics that is essential spooky season viewing.

Shudder is now offering a trio of 1970s horror classics featuring black stars: One of my favorite movies in any season: Sugar Hill (1974), in addition to Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973). 

HBO Max has so many great horror classics streaming right now that I'm only sharing a small portion of what they have to offer. This is definitely the channel to browse for spooky season delight. The collection includes: Eyes Without a Face (1960), Freaks (1932), Hausu (1977), Onibaba (1964), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Equinox (1970), and The Blob (1958). 

Netflix doesn't typically offer a lot of classic titles (as many film fans well know), but they are streaming the bonkers Exorcist III (1990) and Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015), which has lots of lush period details which should appeal to film fans who can handle the (quite brutal) violence. 

If you have access to Kanopy, the service always has lots of classic horror. My favorites: The Vampire Bat (1933), George Romero's underappreciated Season of the Witch (1972), When a Stranger Calls (1979), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), and The Old Dark House (1932).

Oct 1, 2021

Book Review--The Memoirs of Leonard Maltin, Star Struck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood


 

Star Struck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood
Leonard Maltin 
GoodKnight Books, 2021 

Leonard Maltin has had the kind of career where several elements on their own are remarkable: the phenomenal success of his movie guides, a long run on Entertainment Tonight, and his work as a popular USC film professor among them. Add to that a wide array of fascinating side projects, including a long working relationship with Disney and Maltin on Movies, an interview podcast he co-hosts with his daughter Jessie Maltin. This self-described film nerd shares the story of his remarkable life in a memoir full of the enthusiasm and positive energy for which the critic is famous. 

Maltin claims that luck has played a large factor in his success and while it is clear that has often been the case, even more so his “luck” has been showing up and doing the work. As a film-obsessed teen in New York City he was already writing articles about the movies, eventually publishing a movie magazine with a healthy subscription base. He rode the momentum of that early start to Hollywood where he countered the bad reputation of the town by approaching his work with honor and respect for others, something he managed to do while still getting scoops and keeping his employers happy. 

One of the most amusing aspects of Maltin’s story is that he has spent his adult life in the unusual position of being both a fan and a celebrity. A part of him remains that young film obsessive, thrilled to meet the stars of Hollywood past, but his television career made him so recognizable that the famous considered him own of their own. The result: situations like Maltin and his wife befriending movie fan Hugh Hefner and regularly watching movies and awards shows at the Playboy Mansion, with the critic taking off later in the evening to do his Entertainment Tonight duties for the latter. 

It is clear that Maltin’s wife Alice has been instrumental in his long-running success. His loving tribute to her is one of the most touching elements of the book. In addition to being an ideal mate for the critic, she has an instinct for business that kept him going in his early years and continues to be an important part of the Maltin enterprise that now also includes Jessie Maltin. 

Maltin is a great storyteller. For that reason the chapters he writes in praise of his less famous friends are just as fascinating as his memories of meeting stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Olivia de Havilland. His enthusiasm for interesting characters and people in general is contagious. It’s pleasant reading, light and easy, but full of interesting details of a busy life. 


Many thanks to GoodKnight Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Sep 29, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

What a great month for podcasts featuring interviews with true classic Hollywood stars! I loved hearing the memories of three of my favorite actors. Episode titles link to the shows: 

Maltin on Movies 
September 20, 2021 

This is a deeply revealing interview with former child actress Hayley Mills, who is now promoting her new memoir. She shares her love for Walt Disney, the Los Angeles that once was, and her son who was instrumental in helping her to put together her book, in addition to talking about her evolving perspective on being an actress.


Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast
September 20, 2021 

As charming together as one of the most enduring couples in Hollywood as they are individually, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin are just as clever, funny, and with it as they’ve always been. They’re such positive people and it was uplifting to hear their largely affectionate stories of the acting life.


Vanguard of Hollywood 
August 18, 20201 

While I have no interest in collecting classic Hollywood costumes, I’ve long been fascinated by people who do, and Greg Schreiner has one of the largest private collections. It was interesting to hear his tips on how to determine authenticity, like how the interior of a garment isn’t made to please a client, but rather constructed to help a star look fabulous. I was also blown away that it used to be possible to rent authentic costumes, like Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes from Cleopatra.


Watch With Jen 
September 10, 2021 

It was fun to listen to my friend Kate Gabrielle talk about her longstanding fascination with actor Dirk Bogarde. I know I’ve seen a lot of his films because of her. This is a great introduction to some of his most intriguing flicks.

Sep 17, 2021

Book Review--Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Revised and Expanded Edition


 

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir 
Revised and Expanded Edition 
Eddie Muller TCM/Running Press, 2021 

TCM Host and Noir City Festival and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir has long been a favorite among fans of the bitter little world in this popular movie genre. However, a lot has changed since its original publication in 1998. This expanded version of the book has new chapters and restored photos that fill out its dark world. 

Perhaps most significantly, many films mentioned in Dark City that were unattainable when the book first came out are now readily available, some of them thanks to the funding and advocacy work of Film Noir Foundation. The audience for classic noir has also grown, with a niche interest growing into a widespread fandom. That growth is recognized with these new images and perspectives. 

The concept of viewing noir as a city with different shady neighborhoods works well as an organizing concept for the book. Most films in the genre fall easily into a handful of categories, from journalism and prison, to psychopaths and femme fatales. Muller alternates between discussing great films and profiling key actors and creators in noir, with a mix of historical curiosity and gumshoe cynicism. 

While the text is a great primer in noir and sure to be of interest to even longtime fans of the genre, the real stand-out in this edition is the gorgeous photos and posters. The way these images are arranged and presented is stunning, with vivid color, rich black and white, and some photos as big as a full page. It’s a beautiful book. 

There’s a bizarrely alternating tone of feminism and chauvinism that can be unsettling (such as when referring to scenes with “pizzaz” Muller then immediately describes a woman getting knocked out, though he also demonstrates strong advocacy for female creators in the genre) and the long hardcover design makes this what one of my college professors would apologetically call, “not a lying down book,” but overall this is an essential tribute and introduction to film noir. The additions enhance and solidify its status as a classic. 


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

Sep 15, 2021

On Blu-ray: Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie (1943)


 

Madame Curie (1943) gives the biopic of the famous scientist and her husband Pierre the MGM treatment, with sentimental strings, kindly professors, and lofty announcements to the stars, but it is also diligent in its approach to the work and the relationship at its core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

Movies rarely focus on labor with the detail and intensity of Madame Curie. It helps that the real life discoveries that the Curie’s made were thrilling enough to translate to great drama. Marie Curie’s drive to isolate what she would eventually call radium is what is told of the story though; the slow death to follow via poisoning from the elements of her work is yet to come. 

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon are a good fit as the famous married scientists. They easily portray the strong chemistry of these people who come to love each other because they are in harmony when it comes to work. No one is at home waiting on the other; it’s all of one piece. It’s also rare and fascinating to see a screen romance that develops from a base of mutual intellectual stimulation. 

Most of the supporting roles are essentially cameos, with brief if effective appearances from C. Aubrey Smith, Van Johnson, and Margaret O’Brien. As Pierre’s parents, Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty are charming and have a bit more to do. Baby-faced Robert Walker also stands out for the puppy-like eagerness of his turn as Pierre’s laboratory assistant. 

The screenplay by Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau is commendable for finding dramatic tension in tedious lab work. I remember seeing this film as a child on television and having no idea what pitchblende, Thorium, and Uranium were, but feeling very excited about it all. 

Nominated for seven Oscars, it didn’t take home any trophies, but Madame Curie is a solid classic and great entertainment. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer and the more documentary-like take on the story of the discovery of radium via the Pete Smith Specialty Short Romance of Radium


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Sep 8, 2021

On Blu-ray--Chain Lightning (1950) with Humphrey Bogart and Eleanor Parker


 

I’ve watched the test pilot drama Chain Lightning (1950) a few times since I first saw it via the home edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, the most recent viewing on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. I haven’t connected with the film; the story is uninspiring, the script is flat, and the airborne action offers moderate thrills. However, I keep coming back to it, because of my fascination with its leads Humphrey Bogart and Eleanor Parker. 

The tagline for Chain Lightning proclaims it as being “With that special brand of Bogart romance.” As much as that is typical marketing language that you would expect to see on a movie poster, Bogart does offer an unusual romantic perspective. In a film landscape where men rarely showed vulnerability, especially when it came to women, Bogie was all about being open-hearted and showing it. 

While he wasn’t best known as a great screen lover, Bogart was a partner in some of the most moving screen romances. His pairing in three films with real-life love Lauren Bacall is the most legendary, with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) a close second. As he was in those partnerships, Bogie is vulnerable with Parker here, he lets you see him pine for her. The film is too weak, and his other screen matches too legendary for their romance to endure as one for the ages, but it is yet another example of how well Bogart could communicate his emotions and his willingness to be emotionally raw. 

Parker is equally good at subtly, but effectively communicating vulnerability and conflict. It’s perplexing that she wasn’t a bigger star, because no matter what material she had, she always dove right into the emotions of her character and drew the audience into her character’s world. Bogart is one of her better screen partners, because they have equal courage in laying themselves open. 

As I found the action and the plot lacking in Chain Lightning, this was what held my attention. The story of Matt Brennan (Bogart), a World War II pilot who test flies an experimental jet has its moments of excitement and tension, but I don’t know that I would have watched it more than once without the relationship between Brennan and Jo Holloway (Parker) a former WWII love coming back into his life. 

There were other elements here that I found pleasing though. Raymond Massey gets the self-absorbed determination of his aviation tycoon just right. It’s also a pleasure to watch Bogart alone in the cockpit during his test pilots. He’s known for his way with a line, but in observing him in silence for long stretches, you can see how skilled he was as a physical actor as well. I was riveted watching his varied reactions to his dangerous mission. 

Special features on the disc include the cartoon Bear Feat and the goofy Joe McDoakes short So You Want to Be an Actor


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Sep 3, 2021

Book Review--Eartha and Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black and White


 

Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black & White 
Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy 
Pegasus Books, 2021 

Any devoted fan of Eartha Kitt knows that the love of her life was her daughter, Kitt Shapiro. From Kitt’s birth to the end of Eartha’s public life, numerous pictures of the two together show a happy, playful pair enjoying each other’s company. I’ve long wondered about their unusually close relationship and was delighted to learn more about their bond in Shapiro’s warm and generous memoir, Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black & White.


Shapiro tells a story counter to many of those told by children of famous parents. Eartha was devoted to her daughter and kept her close, taking her on airplanes to various engagements as soon as Kitt’s doctor said it was it safe. One could speculate that her constant need for her daughter’s company could be excessive, and it is revealed that need had much to do with her lonely, abuse-filled childhood, but Shapiro’s take is that she accepted and embraced her role as her mother’s companion because she wanted to fill that need and found it mutually beneficial. It’s interesting, and refreshing the way Shapiro understood her mother and committed to her with a good perspective on what she sacrificed and what she gained.


The chapters are arranged in categories, telling a somewhat chronological story of their relationship, but the overall feel is the unordered flow of a woman reminiscing to an intimate audience. Shapiro shares her mother's struggles and triumphs, recognizing the net positive of a woman overcoming brutal odds achieving an unusual level of success in a wildly adventurous life.


While Eartha Kitt did make her mark in film and television, that was only a small part of a diverse career. Shapiro likewise doesn’t devote much attention to her career as an actress, though she does share a few interesting insights. She recalls watching classic films with her mother which were sometimes cast with stars who she had befriended or shared the screen. There’s also a touching moment where seeing Eartha by chance in an old television show gives her much needed strength.


Overall this is a tender and engrossing story. Shapiro shares the complications and blessings of her remarkable relationship with her mother with grace and an understanding that leading with love often means forging your own path.

Sep 1, 2021

On Blu-ray: MGM's Galaxy of Stars in Ziegfeld Follies (1945)


 

Ziegfeld Follies is a mixed-bag. Full of musical and comedy acts meant to emulate the feel of the legendary Broadway version of producer Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies, it alternates between magnificence and moments that elicit indifference. Fortunately the episodic nature of the film allows the viewer to easily curate the viewing experience, because the best parts of this film are among the most memorable in MGM history. I recently revisited the movie on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

The film begins with William Powell as Ziegfeld (reprising the role he played in the biopic The Great Ziegfeld [1936]) in a Heaven that looks like a plush penthouse. He reminisces about his magnificent career in a scene which segues into a recreation of his show time milieu in 1907 using what is billed as Bunin’s Puppets. While I would normally find a cast of marionettes unsettling, here it is a charming way to begin, because the scene captures the detail and the feeling of the era so well. 

Then begins a series of hits and misses: the former typically the song and dance numbers and the latter the comedy sketches, which haven’t aged well, despite being populated with actual Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice and typically reliable comedians like Victor Moore and Keenan Wynn. Even Judy Garland falls a little flat in her musical comedy number A Great Lady Has an Interview though it's fun to watch her because she seems to be having a blast. 

The musical numbers more than make up for the comedy. Here’s to the Ladies features the remarkable sight of Lucille Ball in pink, looking haughtily beautiful and pretending to crack a whip at a group of chorus girls dressed as glittering wild cats. Also magnificent is Lena Horne singing Love in the film’s most fully realized number, a gorgeously-conceived triumph of costume, set, song, and sultry star. The film is also memorable for the Babbitt and the Bromide number in which Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together in their first screen pairing. 

I was less engaged with the rest of the musical numbers, though they all have a certain appeal and that reliable MGM quality. Esther William’s A Water Ballet is lower key than the over-the-top productions in her films, though it is pleasant to watch. Two numbers featuring the dancing duo of Fred Astaire and the proficient, but passionless Lucille Bremer: This Heart of Mine and Limehouse Blues, are haunted by the many dancers better-suited to Astaire as a partner. 

It’s a gorgeous, entertaining film if you have the patience choose the moments that suit your tastes and a must-see for fans of MGM musicals. 

Special features on the disc include the featurette Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches, a Crime Does Not Pay short The Luckiest Guy in the World, the cartoons The Hick Chick and Solid Serenade, a theatrical trailer and a selection of audio-only outtakes and rarities. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a  copy of the film for review.

Aug 25, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up

 


The Atlas Obscura Podcast 
July 18, 2021 

A woman travels to Josephine Baker’s castle in France. She finds the experience so moving that she starts a business through which she helps other women have the experience. Some of them are traveling overseas for the first time. This is a deeply moving story.
The Tinsel Factory: A Film History Podcast 
July 25, 2021 

This no-frills show is a great place for those new to classic movies to start learning about the colorful characters that populated the industry in the early years of Hollywood. However, as someone who knows plenty about that time, I was entertained by this episode about Brando and Sinatra tangling on the set of Guys and Dolls (1955).
The Valley of the Dolls Podcast 
August 5, 2021 

I learned a lot in this detailed history of the making of Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954). The production was troubled and complex, hence the need for a part two to this episode.
Lions Towers & Shields 
July 31,2021 

This is a thoughtful discussion of the 1960 film The Apartment. I appreciated the way the guests acknowledged that Jack Lemmon’s character isn’t so much an innocent as insensitive in the way he enables the mistreatment of women to advance his career.

Aug 20, 2021

On Blu-ray: Cornell Woolrich Adapted for Solid Monogram Programmer, I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes! (1948)


 

I love a speedy, efficient programmer. Sometimes it’s nice to just spend an hour and change with some fascinating characters and a decent story. Productions like the modestly-budgeted, but engrossing Monogram film I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948), newly released on Blu-ray, fit the bill perfectly. 

With a script written by Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming) and based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, this appealing little drama has a strong film noir pedigree. It’s the story of a married dance team Tom and Ann (Elyse Knox and Don Castle) on the skids. Their careers have stalled and they see no path out of their strained existence. 

The set-up for what follows stretches plausibility and is the film’s weakest point. One night Tom throws what he thinks is an old pair of shoes at a cat howling outside the window. Ann quickly points out that they were actually his only tap shoes. After a fruitless search to retrieve them, the shoes mysteriously turn up outside their apartment door the next morning. 

That same night, a man in the building was murdered for his money. Footprints found at the scene match Tom’s briefly missing tap shoes. Police make the connection when he finds a wallet full of cash and his and Ann’s sudden spending spree attracts their attention. It’s a bizarre series of coincidences, but also a perfect noir set-up. 

Tom goes to jail, Ann struggles to find evidence to free him, and Police Inspector Clint Judd (Regis Toomey) eagerly steps in to help. What follows is a series of dead ends and twists and turns that are amusing, though the identity of the killer is easy to determine early on. The tender relationship between Tom and Ann, and the way Ann becomes vulnerable, but remains strong in the sleazy world outside their marital bubble are the main draw here. 

I was struck by the gentleness of the prisoners Tom encounters on Death Row. They spend their time listening to Chopin records, tending to each other’s emotional wounds, and generally demonstrating more compassion than they received in the outside world. In these scenes I was especially touched by the quietly charismatic performance of Bill Walker, one of those busy studio-era actors that has inevitably shown up in several favorites of the typical classic film fan. 

This isn’t a life-changing film, but it is enjoyable. I’d love to see more of these so-called Poverty Row productions on Blu-ray, because it’s a treat to see them respectfully presented in good prints. 

Special features on the disc include the short The Symphony Murder Mystery and the cartoon Holiday for Shoestrings


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Aug 18, 2021

Watching Classic Movies Podcast: Terri Simone Francis, Author of Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism

There’s no star quite like the glittering, charismatic, and forever modern Josephine Baker. In the book Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism my guest Terri Simone Francis explains why Baker’s movies, while a small part of a phenomenal career are an important and enduring part of her legacy. Dr. Francis has also recently introduced a collection of four restored Josephine Baker films currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. We talked about the remarkable screen presence, agency, and appeal of this unique dancer, singer, and actress. 

You can listen here at Anchor.

The show is also available on Spotify, PocketCasts, Breaker, and Radio Public.

You can learn more about Dr. Francis' book, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism and other works here

Her introduction to the Josephine Baker collection on Criterion Channel is here 

Films discussed in this episode: 

The Siren of the Tropics (Criterion Channel) Princess Tam-Tam (Criterion Channel
Zou Zou (Criterion Channel
The French Way (available on Kanopy)

Aug 13, 2021

Book Review--Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood

 


Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood, Short Stories & Plays 
Pam Munter 
Adelaide Books, 2021 

In a world that tends to mock, dismiss, and misunderstood “women of a certain age,” it was interesting to find a book dedicated to approaching the subject with empathy and respect. Pam Munter’s Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood is an intriguing exploration of the magnificence of famous women moving past middle age, flaws and all. 

This collection of stories and plays features women that are a mix of the real and imagined facing the challenge of careers, lovers, and other aspects of their youth drifting away. It sounds glum, but the richness of the characters draws you into their orbit. These are multi-faceted ladies who have lived extraordinary lives and they remain remarkable. 

In addition to characters created out of whole cloth, Munter imagines the inner life of cinematic celebrities like Doris Day, Frances Marion, and Mary Pickford. The tenderest piece features a frail Ethel Barrymore facing the challenge of her last film, Young at Heart (1954). It’s easy to imagine this witty, acerbic, but ailing woman reminiscing in her dressing room and wryly managing Frank Sinatra on the set. 

There are two lightly humorous, but deep-reaching plays in the book: Life Without and Janet, Drake Private Eye. The former a four-hander featuring three women who slyly get the best of a narcissistic man whose ambitions to be a cabaret performer outweigh his talent. The latter an interesting exploration of ambition and the satisfaction that can come from choosing life over career. 

In the end, I found this a fascinating collection because of the way the stories embrace the complexities of fame and being a woman in a rocky industry. It’s bittersweet, but you are constantly reminded that these characters are remarkable people, with memories that will always elevate them. 


Many thanks to Adelaide Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Aug 11, 2021

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--Andrew A. Erish, Author of Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio


When the movies were new, Vitagraph was the most successful film studio in the world. This was a time where as much as 85% of the population was seeing movies on a regular basis, that number is now less than 10%. Vitagraph’s innovations are numerous and influential to the present day, but the impact of the company has been overlooked in accounts of the time, until now. I spoke with Andrew Erish, author of Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood, about his new book Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, in which he sets the record straight and tells a fascinating story about the tumultuous birth of American cinema.

You can listen here at Anchor.

The show is also available on Spotify, PocketCasts, Breaker, and Radio Public.

You can learn more about Andrew’s book at UniversityPress of Kentucky

Eyefilm Museum and The National Film Preservation Foundation stream Vitagraph films for free, in addition to many other fascinating early movies. 

The book of early film criticism we discussed is The Art of the Moving Picture, by Vachal Lindsay. It can be read for free at Project Gutenberg

Recommended films discussed in the episode (titles link to films when available):

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) 

Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909) 

An Easter Lily (1914) 

Father and Son (1912) 

How States Are Made (1912) 

A Midwinter Night's Dream; or, Little Joe's Luck (1906)

Stay tuned for the finale of my inaugural summer season on Wednesday, August 18! 







Aug 6, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Yearling (1946)


 

Few stories explore the beauty and brutality of life as well as The Yearling. The first film version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings best-selling novel balances these opposing, but interconnected elements with simplicity and elegance. Directed with restraint by the underrated Clarence Brown, the film is deserving of its classic status. As I recently watched the new Blu-ray release of the film from Warner Archive, I was struck by how beautiful it is as well. 

The setting is Florida in the 1870s. Pre-teen Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman Jr.) lives with his parents Orry (Jane Wyman) and Penny (Gregory Peck) on their small farm. Jody is a good kid, but a dreamer. His father indulges his drifting nature in opposition to his own strict upbringing. His mother is more rigid; she loves him, but the death of three infant children before him (cut down from six in the novel) makes her reluctant to bond with him and be hurt again should he meet a similar fate. 

While the family struggles to survive the damage to their livelihood caused by a bear, thieving neighbors, a flood, and even the titular deer that Jody takes in as a pet, they are always hopeful for better times. Penny is especially optimistic, looking to an extra crop to raise money for a well or arranging the sly trade of a dog for a new rifle so that he can provide for his family in the way he desires. 

The strict mother type is rarely understood in these kinds of stories, but here the grieving Orry is treated with empathy and compassion. Rather than being angered by her coldness, Jody tries to determine why she is this way. Penny encourages his thoughtfulness, describing the more carefree woman he married, and why he is devoted to her happiness. 

As Penny, Gregory Peck is looser than usual. Something about the role seems to have touched him as he appears genuinely in tune with the hopeful spirit of the character. In a difficult part, Wyman subtly balances the hard shell Orry has formed around herself for protection with those moments when her warmth and love for her family slip out. 

Jarman’s Jody is one of the great classic child performances. He’s as gangling and wobbly as the fawn he adopts, but there’s profound wonder and intelligence in his eyes. His emotional engagement is of a depth beyond his years. 

While this family unit is the focus of the story, there are plenty of fascinating characters in the mix. The shifty Forrester family is fully of tricky personalities, with the tousle-haired Chill Wills a stand-out as Buck. Donn Gift is especially moving and intriguingly eccentric as the crippled Forrester son Fodderwing, Jody’s only friend. The always welcome Henry Travers (It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) also shows up in a small part. 

Iconic cinematographer Charles Rosher (Sunrise [1927]) creates a poetically beautiful milieu, using matte backdrops and paintings to magnificent effect. He manages to seamlessly integrate the studio and location settings so that he captures the grandeur of nature, but also the intimacy of the family’s life together. The film is also beautifully lit, especially in interior scenes where the warmth of the fire and candlelight lend the actors a dreamy glow. 

The Yearling was rightfully a popular and critical success. It received significant awards attention, including Oscar wins for cinematography and art direction. Claude Jarman Jr. won a special juvenile award for his performance as well. 

Special features on the disc include a radio production of The Yearling, the hilarious Tom and Jerry cartoon Cat Concerto, and a theatrical trailer. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Aug 4, 2021

Watching Classic Movies Podcast: John Malahy, Author of Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics

What makes a summer movie? It’s more than sun and sand. I talked with John Malahy of TCM about his book, Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics and we unpacked the many ways the season of vacations and warm weather can come alive in the movies. 

You can listen here at Anchor.

The show is also available on Spotify, PocketCasts, Breaker, and Radio Public.

To learn more about the book, go to Running Press

 John also discussed movies from the book on TCM: 

Gidget (1959)


Jul 30, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: July Round-up

My big news since my last round-up is that I have now started my own interview podcast, Watching Classic Movies. Never fear though, even though I am excited about the new show, I don't plan to fill this feature with a list of my own episodes! Here's what I found interesting this month. Episode titles link to the shows: 

June 3, 2021 

This is the perfect topic for a limited podcast series: the story of how an authentic pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers worn in The Wizard of OZ (1939) was stolen from the Judy Garland Museum and then years later were returned under mysterious circumstances. I don’t know how revelatory it will be for those who followed the scandal in the news when it unfolded, but a lot of the story was new to me and it was interesting to get the details.

Fade Out 
July 3, 2021 

Ashby is an unusual director: every film fan loves at least one of his movies, but he is so rarely celebrated as a great filmmaker. Here screenwriter and film fanatic Larry Karazewski (Ed Wood [1994], Dolemite is My Name [2019]) talks about his admiration for the director and his final, underseen, but riveting film 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) (after watching this film, I’ll never think of Sno-Kones the same way again).


Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!
July 5, 2021 

This July 4th week replay of a 2016 interview with Dick Van Dyke is both hilarious and inspirational. Van Dyke seems decades younger as he shares detailed stories of his long and varied career. It’s worth a listen for the anecdote about Buster Keaton serving him hot dogs via miniature train alone. The biggest takeaway: to stay healthy as you age, keep your body moving and laugh a lot.
The Plot Thickens: The Devil’s Candy 
June 29, 2021 

I wasn’t sure I was going to check out this season of TCM’s official podcast, because as much as I enjoyed the previous season featuring Peter Bogdanovich, I didn’t know if I wanted to hear all about the box office bomb Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Then I remembered that the director of the film was Brian de Palma and I figured it would have some spice with him in the mix. The series is hosted by journalist Julie Salamon, based on her book The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco. De Palma is a big part of the draw in this first episode, but it is also an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood filmmaking overall.

Jul 28, 2021

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--Eve Golden, Author of Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn't Help It


They say never meet your heroes, but “they” never said anything about heroines. In my talk with Eve Golden, I found her to be every bit as witty, informed, and fun as I imagined her to be since I first started reading her Movieline column The Bottom Shelf in the 90s. Since then she has written two collections of film essays, and seven film and theater biographies, with an eighth on the way. We talked about her latest book Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It, her next biography, squealing, bullet bras, and all sorts of other important things. 

To Listen:


You can learn more about Eve Golden at her website.   

Recommended movies discussed: 

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) 
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) 
The Burglar (1957) 
The Wayward Bus (1957) 
Kiss Them for Me (1957) 
Too Hot to Handle [Playgirl After Dark] (1960) 
The Loves of Hercules (1960) 
Dog Eat Dog! [Einer Frisst Den Anderen] (1964)


Stay tuned for a fabulous new guest on Wednesday, 8/4!