Feb 26, 2021

Vera West: Universal's Queen of Ghoul Glamour

My latest video is about the talented and tragic Universal Studios costume designer Vera West. She was one of the first women to head a costume department at a major studio. While she made her mark in a variety of genres, her most influential work was in horror, including some of the most famous Universal chillers. This is her story:


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Feb 24, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: February Round-up

Before I start with this month’s recommendations, I want to briefly mourn the end of one of my favorite podcasts Switchblade Sisters. The last episode will drop on February 25. I’ve featured some of the more classic-leaning episodes of the show in my round-up before. I was always grateful for the thoughtful insights from host April Wolfe and her guests. I highly suggest listening to the archives of the podcast if you enjoy genre film. 

I also recommend this week's episode, featuring director Nora Unkel talking about The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

I Saw What You Did
February 2, 2021

Bill Gunn. Kathleen Collins. Two filmmakers who would have set the world on fire if they were white. Gunn knew it and he spoke out about it. We can still appreciate their accomplishments. This episode is a great place to start. Such a gorgeous tribute. I'm grateful for this show.
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NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour 
February 2, 2021 

The always insightful Jourdain Searles talks about her favorite Cicely Tyson performances. This brief episode was just what I needed to process the passing of this prolific and profound actress. 

The Film Programme 
January 31, 2021 

I had a huge grin on my face while listening to this interview with Leslie Caron. She speaks elegantly and affectionately about her career, including her time dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I imagined her dressed in a Chanel suit, touching the rim of a teacup as she reminisced. Such class and intelligence.

Feb 17, 2021

On Blu-ray: High-Stepping Co-eds in Good News (1947)


The sparkling collegiate musical Good News (1947) is a good fit for the talents of leads June Allyson and Peter Lawford, though it is briskly stolen by Joan McCracken in a supporting role and featured player Mel Torme. The film looks and sounds great on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive which also offers a peek at the even peppier 1930 film version of the Broadway show.

Allyson stars as Connie, a serious student working multiple jobs to support herself at the swank Tait College in 1927. She tutors the self-absorbed football star Tommy (Peter Lawford) and they start a flirtation, though he’s still stuck on the snobby Pat (Patricia Marshall) who wants him for his massive inheritance. Amidst this drama there’s prom, further romantic maneuvering, and the requisite big football game. 

While Allyson was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a college student, she’s charming in the role. I’ll admit I’ve never enjoyed her eager-to-please vibe, but she’s sympathetic here and has great chemistry with Lawford. He makes his feather-light talents work despite clearly having no business being in a musical. 

While the pair is a pleasant match, it’s hard to accept Connie with a guy as selfish and insensitive as Tommy. You want to tell her to run away while she still can. 

In contrast to the gently appealing vibe of Allyson and Lawford’s scenes, supporting player Joan McCracken is like a box of firecrackers. Everything about her is brightly charismatic and exciting, but when she starts to dance she inspires ecstatic joy. The Broadway star didn’t make a lot of movies and it’s a shame, because somehow her stage style works brilliantly on the screen. In the opening of the film and especially leading the film’s centerpiece, the Pass That Peace Pipe production number, Cracken appears effortlessly precise and filled with the joy of performance. 

There are other pleasant songs and engaging dances in the film and Allyson and Lawford lead a delightfully engaging finale, but the Pass That Peace Pipe scene is a marvel that stands on its own. It’s an astonishing feat of precision, with dozens of dancers packed tight in a soda shop set, moving quickly and efficiently, with limbs flailing, all perfectly in-sync. The energy popping in that scene is heart-pounding. This is what makes Good News a true classic. 

I also felt a bit swoony every time featured player Mel Torme appeared onscreen. He doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. You get the impression he wasn’t much of an actor, but who cares with that voice? As it is, he makes the most of the time he gets the spotlight in Lucky in Love, strumming an ukulele, and demonstrating in his easygoing way why he was known as the “Velvet Fog.”

The disc special features are especially entertaining; there’s a couple of fantastic clips from the high-energy 1930 version of Good News (which used more of the songs from the stage version), a radio interview with June Allyson, the deleted musical number An Easier Way, and a theatrical trailer. There’s also a menu with links that go directly to the songs in the film.

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

Feb 10, 2021

On Blu-ray: Baby Doll (1956) Terrorizes the Catholic Legion of Decency


Baby Doll (1956) is an outrageous, erotic, woozy ride. Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, it consistently pushed the limits of respectability and almost entirely through the power of suggestion. Screenwriter/Playwright Tennessee Williams had plenty to write about life in a heated Southern milieu, and this was one of his boldest statements. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Carroll Baker is the titular Baby Doll Meighan, a nineteen-year-old who is married to the scummy and horny cotton miller Archie (Karl Malden). She was his child bride; it was her dying father’s way of ensuring she was cared for, but the pair has struck a bargain that they won’t go to bed until she’s twenty. 

However, now that they’re one sleep away from the big day, Baby Doll is reluctant to fill her side of the bargain. Of course Archie is eager to make things official with his bride, but he’s distracted by crime: he burns down the cotton mill of his competitor, the Italian immigrant Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach). 

Vacarro quickly figures out the cause of his misfortune and he comes to the Meighan residence to get proof, knowing that the community around him will not protect him and that he needs all the evidence he can get. He attacks with charm. Baby Doll is home alone, so he attempts to woo the information out of her. 

Accustomed to being leered at by the disheveled and vile Archie, she’s confused and excited by the attentions of this slick and handsome man in black. They both enjoy what turns into an afternoon of seductive games. Of course Vacarro is laser-focused on getting a signed confession from Baby Doll and protecting his interests, but he finds himself increasingly delighted by their erotic interactions. Flustered and stunned by the methods of this man with gentlemanly tendencies and dignity, Baby Doll begins to realize she couldn't tolerate Archie ever touching her. 

It’s all a heated mess of desires, with Baby Doll the only innocent (even her elderly Aunt Rose Comfort [Mildred Dunnock] proves herself to be greedy and dishonest); though over the course of a day she grows up a lot. Archie is all greed and lust; there’s no nuance. On the other hand, Vacarro is complicated. While he’s ferociously focused on his own interests, he has the sense to slow down and appreciate the charm of the woman he is seducing, and somehow manage to have it both ways. 

The featurette Baby Doll: See No Evil is included in the special features on the disc. It includes interviews with Baker, Wallach, and Baker. In a jaw dropping moment, Baker says she was surprised that the film was viewed as scandalous. 

Baker herself said that they were all probably so wrapped up in the process of filming that they didn’t process the reality of what they were making. Talk about being absorbed. I don’t see how anyone involved with Baby Doll could have missed how outrageous it was, because every moment of this film throbs with eroticism. I have often wondered how it was ever made in the conformist climate of the 1950s. Did the studio see the name Tennessee Williams and think “prestigious playwright, we’re good”? 

Even at the time it was made, Baby Doll tread a complicated path: while it aroused moral indignation, it also won major attention during award season. In a way it isn’t hard to understand. It’s simply a great film: entertaining, phenomenally acted, beautifully staged by director Elia Kazan, and full of brilliant insights about human desire. 

In addition to the featurette, the special features on the disc include a trailer for the film. Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection .

Feb 8, 2021

Writing Elsewhere: Film Discoveries of 2020 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks


If you're looking for film recommendations, take a look at the list I compiled of my favorite film discoveries of 2020 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks! This is a great series, full of amazing contributions. I recommend checking out the other lists as well.

Feb 3, 2021

On Blu-ray: William Powell and Myrna Loy in After The Thin Man (1936)


William Powell and Myrna Loy were perfectly matched as Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man detective film series. For that reason, of the six movies they made as the tippling marrieds, the entries that focused most on their relationship were the best. After the Thin Man (1936), the second film featuring the Charles' is especially good for that reason. I recently watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the film and enjoyed revisiting one of the best screen marriages. 

After the Thin Man doesn’t waste time building up a mystery in its opening scenes. It knows what the audience wants to see and blasts you right into the sparkling presence of Loy and Powell. After their crime-busting New York adventure, they’re returning to the West Coast, where they’re greeted by Asta, his missus and a lively litter of puppies. They’re also supposed to be surprised by a gathering of their friends, though in one of the film’s funniest scenes the party is too wild for anyone to notice the guests of honor have arrived. 

After a good taste of that Charles charm, the mystery begins. Nora drags Nick to dinner with her stuffy relatives and the pair learns that her cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) is distraught over the disappearance of her husband. While the couple tracks him down, it turns out he’s not a great guy and his plotting and deception leads to trouble for all. 

It’s quite a feat to distinguish oneself in the company of Loy and Powell, but Jimmy Stewart does just that as an old friend of Selma’s who carries a torch for her. He was still in the wobbly early phase of his career where he was just as likely to be tossed into a musical as a comedy or drama. Here he combines that doddering quality for which he would become famous with startling moments of dramatic intensity. He was previewing better things to come. 

I’m not sure what to make of the way Nick and Nora’s relationship is portrayed in the films. In the original Dashiell Hammett novel, they’ve clearly got an open marriage. Of course the Code could never allow such an arrangement, but there always seems to be a breath of that permissiveness in the films, in this case when Nick shows up with lipstick on his face and Nora wipes it off, entirely unfazed. 

The idea certainly fits with their happy rejection of polite society. You get a sense of how bored Nora was before she met Nick. She seems happy being surrounded by ex-cons, drinking into the night, and not only accepts that her man has a sketchy past and is in many ways dishonorable, she counts on it. Their love for each other is solid and the rest is just a gas. 

Special features on the disc include the Robert Benchley short How to Be a Detective, the classic cartoon The Early Bird and the Worm, a radio show featuring Powell and Loy, a 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.