Jan 27, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: January Round-up

I was grateful to have so many podcasts I wanted to listen to over this turbulent past month. It was wonderful to escape into the great conversations and fascinating facts in these well-crafted shows:

Imaginary Worlds Podcast 
Betty Boop and the Hays Code 
January 20, 2021 

I like the format of this podcast: host Eric Molinsky interviews several experts about his subject, in this case, Betty Boop and her journey from Pre-code short skirts to high collars and low hems. Here he talks to Thomas Dougherty, Marya Gates, and Boop co-creator Max Fleischer’s grandson Mark (his wife Susan Wilking Horan weighs in with some great insights as well). It was like listening to a well-written magazine article.

Comedy History 101 
February 28, 2020 

I’ve long known how Charlie Chaplin’s films and image were liberally ripped off in the movie industry during his heyday, but this was the first I’d heard about the actual men who impersonated him. Billy West, the most prominent Chaplin imitator gets the most attention here; apparently his inspiration walked by while he was filming and praised his work. I was amused by the stories of the other imitators as well though, especially the hilariously-named Charlie Aplin.

Classic Movie Musts 
January 8, 2021 

Writer Jeremy Arnold (The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) shares his impressive film knowledge as he discusses the early caper film The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). I don’t remember loving this Alec Guinness classic when I first saw it years ago; after listening to this episode I’m eager to give it another try.

Cinema Shame 
January 18, 2021 

Nora Fiore (aka The Nitrate Diva) has the widest-ranging, most infectious love for film. It’s always a delight to hear her talk about cinema, because she gets right to the heart of why it is so appealing and how it connects with the world around us. Here she and host James Patrick discuss a fascinating selection of Films Noir: some classic, some lesser known. A good place to find viewing suggestions, but the conversation is fascinating in itself.

Jan 19, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Bizarre, Beautiful Spectacle of The Pirate (1948)

You never hear anyone say that The Pirate (1948) is their favorite musical, or even their favorite MGM musical, but this unusual and boldly vibrant film is worthy of its own pedestal. I recently re-watched the Vincente Minnelli-directed production on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive and I found the gaudy delight that I had admired in past viewings has retained its appeal.

Of all the set-bound musicals, The Pirate is perhaps the most tightly-confined. It exists in a brightly-colored bubble consisting of a few settings, but for the most part centers on a bustling public square meant to represent a Caribbean town. 

It is there that Gene Kelly bursts onto the scene as Serafin a mischievous traveling actor setting up shop with his troop. Judy Garland is Manuela a local who is just about to marry the mayor of the city; yes it is a stretch to accept her as a Manuela.

Manuela is obsessed with the notorious Macoco, a pirate who represents adventure, virility, and escape. She is about to embark upon a life of comfort and ease as a wealthy man’s wife and the thought horrifies her. When she believes Serafin is Macoco, she falls hard, but the problem is that she sees what she wants to see when the truth is right in front of her.

This light plot serves as the structure for a giddy, lively scenario. The town square is full of extras in bizarre costumes. They are swathed in velvets and silks, stripes and polka dots, with outrageous splashes of color and clashing patterns. It’s busy and a lot to process visually, but it perfectly expresses the chaos of Manuela’s inner life which is now marching out for public view.

Kelly has played his share of rascals, but I’ve never seen him as randy as he is here. In his first number, he swirls around a cast of beautiful, haughty women, making it abundantly clear exactly what he wants and that he’s not the type to settle down. As he leans in to kiss a lovely lady, he sucks his lit cigarette into his mouth, letting it pop out when his task is completed. It is a precursor to the first time he sees Manuela, when in reaction to her beauty he lets a slow stream of smoke trail out of his mouth.

In line with the heated Mr. Kelly, Garland has never been so sultry. With her bright red lips and dreamy fits of fantasy, she is passion incarnate. Minnelli knew just how to show his star, and wife, to her best advantage. Here under his tender care she is transformed into a glowing temptress. It’s a pleasure simply to watch her raise a questioning eyebrow because she is so lovingly filmed.

The vibrant cast of characters gathered in the square does much to add to the mood of vibrancy and excitement. I found it exciting to see so many Black actors in dignified and lavish dress included in the mix, something you rarely got to see in that era. There are moments that drag a bit in The Pirate, but a glimpse of this milieu always gets things going again.

While the Cole Porter score doesn’t have the fire of his best works, the cheerfully tuneful Be a Clown is a high point. Garland and Kelly dance to the tune, but the highlight is Kelly’s dance with the Nicholas Brothers Harold and Fayard. They were a well-matched trio because all three dancers favored athletic, precise moves and high-energy choreography.

While it doesn’t have the robust roster of tunes to make it the best and brightest of the MGM musicals, this delightfully odd production is hugely entertaining, with its stars clearly enjoying the strange, but fascinating tone of it all.

Special features on the disc include commentary by historian John Fricke, a making-of featurette, a vintage comedy short and cartoon, a stereo remix of Mack the Black, song outtakes, promotional radio interviews with Garland and Kelly, 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.

Jan 13, 2021

Book Review--Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s


Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s 
Kimberly Truhler 
Good Knight Books, 2020 

Having read as many books about film noir as humanly possible, with the publication of Kimberly Truhler’s Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s I was surprised to realize it was the first I’d read dedicated to the fashion of the genre. Given how influential the looks from these years have been on style, all the way to the present day, that’s surprising. Truhler ably manages the task of exploring the most distinctive looks of forties noir, how they were created, and their influence on fashion. 

Film Noir Style covers twenty films, appropriately arranged in sections relative to World War II. By dividing the selections into pre-war, wartime, transition, and post-war, Truhler is able to note the dramatic changes in style that came with each period, where rationing, changes in the status of women, and a radically shifting United States all played a role in the looks that made it to the screen. Because those changes were so dramatic, it helps that each section begins with an general overview of each period covered.

Truhler notes the direct line from German Expressionism to Film Noir, as directors like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg brought a shadowy style with them to Hollywood after cutting their teeth at the famous German studio UFA. This moodiness extends to the clothing: dark, sensual, and spare due to wartime rationing.

While many of the most famous designers are represented here: Irene, Edith Head, and Orry-Kelly among them, I was especially fascinated to learn about lesser-known costumers who created highly influential work, like RKO’s Edward Stevenson (Out of the Past [1947], Murder My Sweet [1944]) and Universal’s Vera West (The Killers [1946]). Some of these artisans seem to have drawn inspiration from their own noir-like lives, with West the most unfortunately similar to a doomed character she might have costumed.

The film selection features many clear noir classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Laura (1944), but also includes some interesting outliers like The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Lady in the Lake (1946). While they didn’t all strike me as solid noirs (not entirely in agreement that Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious [1946] is a noir, though it’s not completely off-base as a choice), they work well together as a reflection of genre style.

While the book is filled with jaw dropping pictures of many of the fashions discussed, I found myself a bit frustrated by their arrangement. It would have been nice to have seen more of the photos presented alongside the text describing them and perhaps have some sort of footnote-like reference to make everything easy to find. Of course, it would have been ideal, and likely very difficult to manage, to have pictures of all the costumes described in the book, but the representation here is excellent. Just have a good search engine on hand.

Overall this is a thoughtfully written book which elegantly pulls together the threads of society, cinema, and the brilliance of costumers. In the end I was struck by how personal costuming can be: created for specific characters, plots, and body shapes, and yet it can influence the daily fashion choices of a wide audience around the world and across time. Something to think about the next time you shop for a trench coat or a dramatic black gown.

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

Jan 6, 2021

On Blu-ray: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Mortal Storm (1940)


The Mortal Storm (1940) presents a personal view of how the Nazi regime first began to devastate the world. It finds the poison at the root of its rise and demonstrates how quickly it spread. While it is a difficult film to watch, the charm of its stars and director Frank Borzage’s powerful imagery make it simultaneously fascinating. I recently revisited the film via a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Margaret Sullavan stars as Freya Roth, a German college student, daughter to the respected Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), on the edge of being engaged to Fritz, one of his students (Robert Young), and loved by Martin, her lifelong friend (Jimmy Stewart). She lives with her parents (mother Emilia played by Irene Rich) and her brothers (Robert Stack and William T. Orr). 

A peaceful family birthday celebration with these core characters is halted by the news that Adolf Hitler has become chancellor. Their lives are  changed in a moment. The intrusion is abrupt and decisive. 

Immediately the ideological divisions among the once cheerfully united guests are made clear. All that came before, joyful scenes of skiing, singing in the pub, the birth of a foal, is slapped away. The rules of society shift. 

Nazi salutes are expected. Soldiers beat non-believers in the street. No one is immune, a fact illustrated by the varied struggles of the young as symbolized by a teenage housemaid (a touching Bonita Granville), Martin’s morally solid mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), and the sudden upheaval of the lives of everyone who falls in between. 

Of course it’s clear from the beginning that the entitled and briskly regimental Fritz is not the man for gentle Freya. This is one of the last of the four films Sullavan and Stewart starred in together (also Next Time We Love [1936], The Shopworn Angel [1938], The Shop Around the Corner [1940]) and their low-key camaraderie is more soothing than sizzling, but they are an appealing team. 

As the heads of the Roth family, Morgan and Rich demonstrate the kind of affection and loyalty the younger couple could achieve in later years. In a harrowing prison meet-up, Borzage’s elegant composition gives the pair a moment of intimacy in the midst of the horror. Simple, spare, but somehow warm compositions like these give the film an air of wistfulness for better times and a sense of what’s good and what’s worth fighting for. 

It’s impossible to miss the parallels to the present day: the turn to ideology over empathy, science, learning, even logic. This tense, scary milieu is made more meaningful decades later, where you know that things can better, and they can get worse, but there are always good people who are determined to fight for the greater good. 

Special features on the disc include the cartoon Peace on Earth, the short Meet the Fleet, 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.