Mar 31, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: March Roundup

For the first time in a long while, I think every podcast in my monthly round-up is new to this site. I love finding new shows, so if you've got a podcast, or one you enjoy that I haven't covered, please let me know in the comments!

Rarified Heir 
March 9, 2021 

This is a fascinating chat with Chris Lemmon, son of Jack Lemmon. He shares lots of charming memories about his dad and the more friendly Hollywood he grew up in. I especially loved hearing his stories about the real life characters in their family orbit, including Walter Mattheau and Christopher Walken.

Forgotten Film Cast 
January 15, 2021 

While I’ve known about the animated UPA production Gay Purr-ee (1962) for years, I’ve never seen it, so I was a bit alarmed to learn from this podcast that the plot involves trafficking of a cat bride. Of course it’s played for laughs, which is even weirder. And yet, I’m curious to see it after this conversation.


Beyond the Big Screen 

While I knew that John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn didn’t scream authenticity, this episode still stunned me, because it seems Hollywood got almost nothing right about Mongol history. The truth is as fascinating as the mishaps are amusing. 

The History of Film 
January 20, 2021 

I have long wanted to learn more about the French silent film comedian Max Linder. This was a good introduction to the actor.

Mar 26, 2021

On Blu-ray, Musical Delights for Troubled Times: My Dream Is Yours (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and Show Boat

With all the tension and troubles in the world right now, I nearly cheered at the opportunity to review this trio of musicals recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. Great music, gorgeous stars, and beautiful settings; there’s nothing like a well-made classic musical.

My Dream Is Yours (1949)

Doris Day followed her remarkably assured debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948) with another impeccable performance in My Dream Is Yours (1949). It’s amazing to me that this perfectly paced and charmingly acted film isn’t better known. The story of a single mother hustling with her determined manager to become a singing star is a perfect showcase for Day's daisy-fresh persona.

Day is paired again with Jack Carson. Next to Rock Hudson, I’ve always thought Carson was her best screen partner. They both have an energized, but effortless appeal, like neither of them has to work too hard to entertain. 

In addition to an amusing batch of catchy songs, including the cheerful Cutting Capers and the swoon worthy title tune, the film is full of visual delights, such as a bizarre dream sequence featuring Bugs Bunny, the elegant presence of an all-female radio orchestra, and lots of colorful costumes and sets. 

The supporting cast is a sharp crew of Warner Bros players including Eve Arden, Adolphe Menjou, and S.Z. Sakall, who is always a welcome sight, though it’s a shame none of his characters ever seemed to have an intellect above that of a preschooler. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Ham in a Role, the drama short The Grass Is Always Greener, and the comedy short So you Want to Be an Actor.

On Moonlight Bay (1951)

It’s funny to see Doris Day transition from the sunny, but savvy career girl in My Dream Is Yours to her role as an innocent teenager in On Moonlight Bay, but it’s impressive too because she pulls it off. 

I love the corny good cheer of this turn-of-the-century comedy (I hope the equally amusing sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon [1953] makes it to Blu-ray). It’s a great balm for tense times. 

Day plays tomboy Judy, who abruptly decides to switch gears and put on a dress when she meets the handsome Bill (Gordon McRae). Until World War I rolls around, nothing more traumatic than a broken leg happens in their pleasant, small town world. 

The film is a series of gentle vignettes, featuring a cast of appealing and under-used character actors including Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as her parents, the refreshingly unmannered Billy Gray as her brother, and Jack Smith as Judy’s handsome, but hapless and irritating suitor. The never under-used, ubiquitous Mary Wickes is also a delight as the family maid. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Hound for Trouble, and the musical short Let’s Sing a Song About the Moonlight.

Show Boat (1951)

While there is much to love about the pink satin and ribbons MGM-style grandeur of George Sidney’s adaptation of this legendary stage musical, I’ve never fallen completely under its spell. 

For one, James Whale’s artistically lensed 1936 version captured the grittiness of the story with greater flair and having legendary personalities like Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on hand certainly helped. I’m also not a fan of the operatic singing style of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, which somehow doesn’t work as well for me on the screen as it would in a stage production. Viewers who like that style will find this film heavenly; I tend to resent it a little more because it meant that Ava Gardner’s lovely singing voice with that perfect Southern drawl had to be dubbed so that she’d fit the bill. 

As in Whale’s version, the supporting cast is delightful, featuring Joe E. Brown in an unusually reserved performance, Agnes Moorehead, William Warfield doing a wonderfully rumbly version of Ol' Man River, and Marge and Gower Champion as the show boat’s comedic team. Ava Gardner is the stand-out though: she’s passionate, raw, and unafraid to appear stripped of her glamour (she remains stunningly beautiful even when she's supposed to be ragged). 

It’s a fine spectacle, but I kept thinking back to Robeson, Morgan, and the magical way Whale filmed the sparkling river water. 

Special features on the disc include commentary by George Sidney, the Show Boat sequence from the 1946 musical Till the Clouds Roll By, an audio clip of Ava Gardner singing Bill and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, a Lux Radio on Theater Broadcast, 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.

Mar 24, 2021

Theater Streaming: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland Fight the Power in Vietnam-era Documentary F.T.A. (1972)

Over the past few years of intensifying chaos in our world, I’ve often thought about the interviews Donald Sutherland gave to promote The Hunger Games, the first film in a franchise for which he portrayed the insidious President Snow. It was 2014 and he hoped that the film’s message would inspire young people to become “more politically aware.” It wasn’t long that reality, rather than cinema, brought that shift. 

As can be seen in the newly-restored and long obscure documentary F.T.A. (1972) (meaning: Free the Army or occasionally another more profane 'F' word), Sutherland has long been in the fight himself, much like his costar Jane Fonda. The film documents how an anti-war musical, comedy and dramatic performance troop, a sort of antidote to the cheerfully oblivious USO shows, led by Sutherland and Fonda on a tour of the US and Pacific Rim bases, brought comfort to members of the military who opposed the Vietnam War. 

Until now, F.T.A. has been difficult to see. The film was taken out of release only a week after it was released. According to director Francine Parker, that was due to a call from the White House. 

The restoration includes a new introduction by Jane Fonda which helps to put the film in context. She explains that she was challenged by GIs to get involved in the anti-war movement and that she accepted because she saw a significant resistance to US involvement in Vietnam within the military.

It’s a remarkable film in the way it respects the goal of Fonda, Sutherland, and company to focus on the needs and voices of the military members who question the actions of their government and the local activists in the places where they are stationed. They often take a back seat to the voices around them, thought notably taking the heat whenever there is government resistance or a disruptive audience member. It was gratifying to see Okinawan folk artists singing their protest songs and the troop members taking the time to listen to the concerns of their military audience. 

Fonda is particularly adept at switching roles, from vigorous spokesperson to empathetic listener. She speaks with a confidence and authority that was and continues to be challenging for many to accept from a woman and that she’s kept her intensity fresh for so many decades is inspiring. Here you also get the rare chance to observe her taking in GI stories, asking questions, and carefully processing what she hears with compassion and intelligence. This is a wealthy star who could have lived in uncomplicated luxury and instead has risked her safety and reputation throughout her whole adult life to fight for a better world. 

While Sutherland is less prominent in the film, it is clear he was committed to playing a supportive role in the resistance and understood the power in showing up and providing a platform for the voices that needed it. He’s always quietly mesmerizing when he does have the spotlight, as when he recites a passage from Johnny Got His Gun, demonstrating a perfect intersection between his dedication to his craft and his desire for justice.

The troop is appealing in its diversity and enthusiasm (members included Holly Near, Paul Mooney, and Rita Martinson). Folk singer and civil rights activist Len Chandler is a stand-out both for his musical talent and invigorating revolutionary zeal. Chandler is a great example of the spirit of the troop, holding up lyrics for a nervous military performer, enthusiastically boosting sing-alongs, listening supportively to the concerns of young black men understandably resistant to invading another country when they are not supported at home, and reveling in the community feeling meant to make those who resist feel less frightened and alone. 

The film has an unusual effect today. It is very much of its time, with artists hollering folk tunes, shouting for the release of Angela Davis from prison, and flashing peace signs, but all of the issues the artists, military personnel, and locals discuss are as pressing today as they were then. In observing a sketch where a white doctor beholds a heavily pregnant black woman and questions her condition, it’s chilling to think how that kind of disbelief is still dangerously prevalent in the medical community and continues to endanger lives. 

While it's frustrating to realize how long people have been fighting for the same issues, it's encouraging to think of the tenacity of some of these life-long activists. If Jane Fonda is still going. If Donald Sutherland is still going. If Angela Davis is still going. Then we can keep it up too. F.T.A. reinforces the importance of compassion and community in that fight. 

F.T.A. is streaming virtually via Kino Marquee . 

Many thanks to Kino for providing access to the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Kino.

Mar 17, 2021

On Blu-ray: Real Life Marrieds Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in Room for One More (1952)


Based on the 1950 autobiography by Anna Perrott Rose, Room for One More (1952) is a charming and surprisingly edgy story about a family that fosters two troubled children. Starring the then-married Betsy Drake and Cary Grant, it’s an interesting mix of humor, drama, and ideas about parenting that are sometimes dated, but more often forward-thinking and bold. I recently enjoyed the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

It’s amusing that Drake and Grant were actually husband and wife at the time of filming, because while they have great chemistry onscreen together, they appear so different. With her sensible hair and modest beauty, Drake looks like a middle class housewife. On the other hand, the tanned, sexy Grant, with his sleekly pomaded hair looks like a movie star. Of course, it is most important that they are believable as parents and both connect well with their movie brood (which includes the always delightful little-old-man-child George “Foghorn” Winslow). 

Drake is the steady half of the pair. She knows what it takes to keep her household happy and healthy. While it is an enormous, risky thing to add two struggling children to a family that already has three, she handles difficult situations with serenity and she does so by giving the kids the power to make their own happiness and security. 

Grant has his own moments of parenting brilliance. His is the final decision in bringing teenaged orphan Jane (Iris Mann) into the fold for good and he has an amusing discussion about the birds and the bees with a clueless Jimmy-John (Clifford Tatum Jr.). However, his primary job is to be the family doofus and he fills that role brilliantly, with double takes, physical humor, and an instinct for how to draw the most hilarity out of his interactions with a cast of children he seems to enjoy. 

The Rose house is a chaotic tumble of adorable children and animals, but there are a couple of things that keep the film from falling into sloppy sentimentality. One, Jane and Jimmy-John are deeply affected by the trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives and while the solutions to their anguish are occasionally a little too pat, they’re based in practical thinking. The other, more amusing element is that this family film is filled with references to Poppy’s extreme horniness in a setting where fulfilling the needs of five children is a 24-hour job. 

It’s an unusual film, somehow both sweet and brutal, and always attuned to the fact that we are at our best when we look out for each other. 

Special features on the disc include the classic cartoons Operation Rabbit and Feed the Kitty, 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 .

Mar 10, 2021

Book Review: Shooting Midnight Cowboy


Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and The Making of a Dark Classic
Glenn Frankel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

John Schlesinger was not in attendance at the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony when he won the best director Oscar for Midnight Cowboy (1969). He had his towering blonde star John Voight accept on his behalf, and asked the actor to highlight the contribution James Leo Herlihy’s source novel had made to the success of the film. For that reason I find it interesting that in writing about the making of the film, Glenn Frankel has also spotlighted Herlihy as the heart and soul of the project. 

Writers, whether of screenplays or novels are rarely given such prominent recognition in the making of a film, which makes it especially satisfying to see Herlihy’s central role in the film’s production history. It is also appropriate, because the wistfully drifting spirit which defines the film comes directly from the author and the way he processed the turbulent scene in late sixties New York. 

Before digging into the particulars of the production, Frankel sets the scene by using Herlihy’s story to reflect his own personal imprint on the novel and the dramatic change of the times he lived in. For a while I felt impatient to get into the production back story, but this background is essential to understanding the film and how it was made. That said I enjoyed the details of the production in the second half of the book so much more that I think these opening chapters could have been more effective if they were at least somewhat condensed. 

While Midnight Cowboy was a studio production, United Artists was a different kind of studio, and Schlesinger was able to make his movie with more of an independent eye. The book is at its best when it explores how that freedom allowed a feeling of creative, collaborative community during filming and in the creation of key elements such as the script, set, and costumes. A lot of the film’s authenticity is thanks to that liberty, like the fun of costume designer Ann Roth spotting a key piece in the backseat of a hustler’s car or the way Schlesinger was able to use unusual lighting and different kinds of cameras to achieve his vision. 

Frankel is also diligent in recording the stories of those made most vulnerable in the process. Often a production history will focus on the ravings of the director (Schlesinger had his moments) or the drama between the stars (in this case, Dustin Hoffman and Voight were strong collaborators). I appreciated that Frankel acknowledged less prominent stories like the emotional torment Schlesinger’s partner Michael Childers endured from the crew as his assistant and the trauma actress Jennifer Salt suffered in filming a graphic rape scene. He also acknowledges casting director Marion Dougherty’s essential role in the success of the film and the frustration she felt being overlooked for her contributions. 

I found this production history more satisfying than most, partly because of how Frankel acknowledges that exploring the times in which it was made is key to understanding this particular film, but also because he gets the complexity of filmmaking and the necessity of capturing small details that affect the whole. 

Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 3, 2021

On Blu-ray--Laurel or Hardy: Early Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy


Before Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy became one of cinema’s greatest comedy teams, they each had thriving solo careers in silent movies. Now a new release from Flicker Alley, Laurel or Hardy: Early Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, brings thirty-five of these early films to Blu-ray, newly restored by the Library of Congress and Blackhawk Films and featuring fresh piano scores by some of the best accompanists in the business. 

Often billed as “Babe” Hardy, Oliver Hardy appeared in hundreds of films early in his career, both as star and bit player. Laurel made fewer films as a solo act, but was lead player in more of them than his future partner. 

Music hall veteran Laurel seems to have come to the movies with his screen persona essentially developed. His toothy grin, occasional fits of bawling with mouth wide open, playful impishness, and a general feeling of being resourceful, but also tossed about by the world all transferred to his partnership with Hardy. Aside from playing second banana to Larry Semon (whom he disliked) in Bears and Bad Men (1918), Laurel is the main attraction in the titles featured here. 

Hardy’s screen image was much more diverse in his early years. He shows himself to be the stronger actor of the two, with an ability to pivot from angry bully to soft Mama’s boy so smoothly that he sometimes seemed like different people from film to film. He often plays support to other players in his shorts here: Semon (again) and the Charlie Chaplin impersonator Billy West among them. His appearance is also quite different: Laurel never went heavy on the make-up, while Hardy often wore heavy eyebrows and a mustache, a look which dates his early films more than his eventual partner’s. 

The booklet included in the set is a helpful guide to the period and the films, adding important context about where each man was in his career at the time of filming and highlighting early concepts that were later revisited in the films the comedians made as a duo. 

Overall, the effect of the set is a bit stunning. When you think of what it must have taken to restore them, to see these films that are over a century old looking as sharp and clean as they do and accompanied with such loving care is miraculous . They’re important because of their place in film history, but they’re also a riot to watch and a testament to the timeless nature of great comedy. 

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