Jun 30, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up


The variety and quality of the podcasts I listened to this month was especially impressive. This is one of my most extensive round-ups because I kept finding amazing things! Click on the episode title to link to the show: 

Twenty Thousand Hertz 
Foley Artists June 9, 2021
Prop ‘til You Drop , June 23, 2021 

I never guessed the right source of the things I heard in this two-parter about Foley artists, the people who make sound effects for the movies. I kept shouting out “cornflakes!” and it was always some other astonishing, but everyday item making the sound. What a fun job this would be.

May 5, 2021 

This is an excellent conversation about A Trip To The Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902). Hosts Amy and Paul put Georges Méliès’ film in the context of its times and thoughtfully analyze what it meant then and how it has endured today.

The Little Miss Movies Podcast
June 8, 2021  

I love this family podcast, in which the mother and father of a 10-year-old show their daughter films they would normally not seek out and then discuss them together. As co-host/mom Christina Rice’s biography, Mean…Moody...Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, has recently been published it is fitting that the trio would discuss Russell’s most popular film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Maltin on Movies 
May 21, 2021 

Ben Burtt, the guy who created the sound of the light saber, is in love with his work as a movie sound designer. It’s fascinating the lengths he will go to to understand where classic film sounds come from and how to create that perfect sound for his own projects. Of course, Burtt is well-loved among attendees of TCM Classic Film Festivals for the presentations about the origins of film sound effects he has done for many years with visual effects artist Craig Barron.

The Film Programme 
March 25, 2021 

Francine Stock elicits an impressive amount of insight from Christopher Plummer, Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, and Peter O’Toole in this brief compilation of interview clips. This retrospective is all the more touching because Plummer and O’Toole are no longer with us. 

Micheaux Mission 
April 13, 2021 

I appreciate the way hosts Vince and Len aren’t afraid of silence. They will pause as long as it takes to get a thought right. They talk about a lot more than Lizzie Borden’s feminist classic Born in Flames, but I liked the film discussion the best. They work through their disagreements about it so well.

Jun 28, 2021

Book Review--Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics

Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics 
John Malahy 
TCM/Running Press, 2021 

When I first heard of Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, I imagined a tribute to films like Gidget (1959) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), with maybe a few coming-of-age and summer camp comedies thrown in. There’s a lot more to the films author John Malahy has selected for this book though and more viewing suggestions than the thirty featured flicks. 

Of course, Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo are both a blast and worthy of inclusion in any list of summer movies, but there are several less obvious, but equally apt entries included here. There are also films that evoke the feeling of summer, like Rear Window (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Do the Right Thing (1989), in addition to travelogues and tributes to summer vacation.

Summer movies often play on the passions, sense of adventure, and poor decisions that can come from blazing heat and lowered inhibitions. That free-wheeling spirit can unleash itself on the beach, at the fair, and during summer camp, but it can also be found on city streets, shut up in a hotel room, or in a stuffy apartment. The films collected here unfold in locations around the world, with a wide array of characters, and all with the common denominator that business as usual falls aside when temperatures soar. 

I love that each entry has a double feature suggestion. While complementary, they are generally more adventurous films, offering a contrast to the more mainstream selections of the core list. This does much to increase the appeal of the book for more knowledgeable film fans. 

Malahy clearly has a deep and diverse understanding of cinema, which makes this a more compelling read than the cheery cover might suggest. It’s a fun book, light enough for browsing on the beach, but substantial in detail and with thoughtful analysis. 

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

Jun 23, 2021

Dramas on Blu-Ray: They Won't Believe Me (1947) and Each Dawn I Die (1939)

 I recently watched a pair of dramas new to Blu-ray from Warner Archive where men find themselves in peril and work around the law as they attempt to save themselves. 

I was drawn to They Won’t Believe Me (1947) because I liked the cast: Robert Young, Susan Hayward, and Jane Greer. All of them are reliably good and deeply appealing, but none of them got quite the attention they deserved. 

This twisty noir is a remarkably good vehicle for the trio. It kept me guessing until the end. 

This is a special film in part because it was produced by Joan Harrison, longtime collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and a rare female in that position, particularly at the time. The restoration includes fifteen minutes that were removed from the theatrical version of the film. From what I understand this footage serves Greer’s character best, making her more sympathetic and fully-realized. 

Taylor plays against type as a cad named Larry, a minority partner at a brokerage house, who has married Greta for her money (Rita Johnson) and fallen in love with Janice (Jane Greer) who he meets on the sly on Saturday afternoons. When Greta thwarts his plans to run away with Janice, he falls into another affair with Verna (Susan Hayward) and once again tries to run away with her, but this time the problems he encounters are more complicated than a wife who is unwilling to let go. 

Larry is charming and he’s a good talker, so it isn’t surprising that he manages to captivate all these women. He is also skilled at concealing his self-absorption and lack of morals, not only from them, but from himself. The way that fate begins to creep up on him is fascinating, because most films noir are about the mechanics of justice, while here there is an added emotional element. Larry ultimately catches up with himself.

In Each Dawn I Die (1939) James Cagney is a more innocent “man in peril.” This prison drama makes good use of the actor’s ability to be both heroic and a thug. 

Here he is determined newspaper reporter Frank Ross, who is framed for a serious crime when he gets on the wrong side of a well-connected man. While locked up, he not only keeps his own moral compass, but tries to help his fellow inmates, who instantly consider him one of their own. 

He is especially tight with ‘Hood’ Stacey (George Raft) a career criminal with low expectations of his fellow humans, who is stunned by Frank’s loyalty. They try to help each other out and chaos ensues as a result. 

While the prison setting has its share of brutality, the camaraderie between the men is fascinating and a snappy script keeps things popping among them. That underlying feeling of community brings greater tension to a few effectively-staged moments of violence. 

 Jane Bryan is a standout as Cagney’s girl. She’s sweet, but also tough and clever. George Bancroft is solid, if not terribly expressive as the prison warden. He never comes off as very bright in his films, but here he evokes a decency and sense of fairness that makes him a little more compelling than your typical movie jail official. 

It’s one of those crime films that hit all the clichés of thirties hood patter and corrupt officials, but it distinguishes itself because of the way it humanizes its characters. 

Special features on the disc include a carryover of the Warner Night at the Movies program from the DVD release. They include a short subjects gallery, cartoons, and a blooper reel. There's also commentary by film historian Haden Guest and a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing  copies of the films for review.

Jun 18, 2021

Book Review--Mean..Moody...Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend


Christina Rice 
University Press of Kentucky, 2021 

I’ve been eagerly anticipating Mean...Moody…Magnificent, because I couldn’t put down Christina Rice’s first biography, about Ann Dvorak. While this book is not the passion project that Rice’s debut was her follow-up is just as addictive; she is a skilled storyteller and researcher. 

I thought I had a good handle on the life and career of Jane Russell, a woman who became famous for her figure and who endured thanks to great comic chops and a big heart. It turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about the way her career unfolded and the varied life she led beyond the movies. 

What I found most fascinating was that as much as Russell enjoyed making movies and worked to keep her career alive, they were not the center of her life, though she took her work seriously and would even produce some of her own films. She was a member of successful singing group, a vigorous advocate for child adoption via her organization World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), and lived a life full of friends, family, and associates to whom she was loyal and loving. 

While Russell only made twenty-five films, she covered a variety of genres, from musicals and comedy to westerns, drama, and noir. Despite having no training as an actress, she was able to succeed in any kind of role she attempted, partially due to her unusually robust self confidence. 

She has excellent comic timing in The Paleface (1948), sings and cracks wise with ease in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and rises to the occasion in more dramatic roles such as her turn as an isolated housewife in Foxfire (1955) and as an enterprising lady of the night in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). 

Even in the films that are not as good: like Russell's debut in The Outlaw (1943) and the minor crime flick The Las Vegas Story (1952), she has a dynamic presence, always elevating a scene with the simple gift of her charisma. She wasn’t afraid of work, but in a way she didn’t have to work too hard, there was an effortless quality to her acting which seemed to mirror the easygoing way she approached life. 

In a way Russell could afford to be a little laidback, because while her decades-long contract with the eccentric Howard Hughes could be restrictive, being backed by the wealthy producer gave her some career security. It was also ultimately wise that she was loyal to Hughes when she could have left his employ, despite all the frustrations that came with being under contract to him. 

There were also some occasionally destructive aspects to Russell, which Rice approaches with an eye for the complexities of the situations in which she found herself. She likewise makes a thoughtful analysis of the controversial comments the actress made late in her life which seemed to contradict the way she lived. 

What struck me the most about the way this book was written was how refreshing it was to hear Russell’s story from the perspective of a woman. In a time when there are men in the classic film community who still find it hilarious to make jokes about the actress’ breasts on Twitter, I liked how Rice fully explored the way her figure drove her career without treating it like a punch line. 

Even Russell accepted that her measurements were a significant part of her fame; she would not have been a Playtex bra spokesperson in later years if she hadn’t, but she also found it all a bit ridiculous, because she knew how much more she had to offer. Rice also understands Russell’s value beyond that prodigious bust line and she gives proper focus to the other skills and elements of the actress’ personality that kept her successful where mere sex appeal would not have sufficed. She shows the depths of a woman who lived well by believing in herself and embracing the world around her. 

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

Jun 9, 2021

A Trio of Musicals On Blu-ray: Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), Athena (1954), and The Tender Trap (1955)

While I’ve never been a particular fan of musicals, I’ve found them to be a wonderful escape in these tense times. Recently I enjoyed a trio of them on newly-released Blu-rays from Warner Archive.

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) 

Ginger Rogers is rightfully Fred Astaire’s most famous partner. Together they possessed the perfect mix of skill and chemistry. The pairing of Eleanor Powell and Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 is another matter. It is an explosive match of talent; the two best dancers in Hollywood delighting in each other. 

George Murphy is game as the guy who hoofs with Powell until the magical match-up. We get a taste of Astaire and Powell’s high-stepping energy together in a couple of numbers, but the stunner is the climactic Begin the Beguine. Tapping across a highly-polished glass floor, they match each other move for move, with well-practiced precision, looking as if they are prancing among the stars, weightless and vibrant. To top it all off, they perform to the best Cole Porter tune in a film full of winners. It’s simply one of the best moments of classic Hollywood. 

Special features on the disc include Cole Porter in Hollywood: Begin the Beguine, Our Gang short The Big Premiere, the cartoon The Milky Way, and a theatrical trailer. 

Athena (1954) 

All I knew of this lesser-known musical before I pressed play was that it starred two of my favorite stars from the fifties: Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds. This is a nice early venture for both of them, lightly entertaining, though without a single memorable original song in the mix. 

They are sisters in a large, eccentric family that owns a health food store and houses a gaggle of muscle men in training at an enormous hilltop mansion. Louis Calhern, in full Colonel Sanders white, is Grandpa, the patriarch of the clan. Evelyn Varden is his spacy, but spiritual wife. Powell (Athena) and Reynolds (Minerva) are two of their six granddaughters, all of them with ancient Greek and Roman names and obsessed with astrology and healthy living. Their vegetarianism and rejection of cigarettes and alcohol were quirky to the extreme at the time, now it just looks like your typical Instagram post. 

This film was my introduction to Vic Damone, a dreamy-eyed crooner who woos Minerva. He does a wonderful rendition of the Boy (Girl) Next Door from Meet Me in St. Louis for the film’s opener for an auditorium full of swooning teens. Edmund Purdom is an uptight businessman upon whom Athena sets her sights; he does a fine job injecting enough lightness into his persona from the beginning that you don’t wonder why this sparkling woman would want such a square. There are also a couple of stand-outs in the supporting cast. Steve Reeves, who was then best known for his Mr. Universe title, caught the attention of an Italian producer in his role here as one of the muscle men and was soon starring as Hercules in the series of films for which he would be best known. Linda Christian is also fabulously icy as Purdom’s fiancée, properly playing her role with the personality of a foundation garment. In a part that was meant to fade into the background, Henry Nakamura is especially charming and funny as Purdom’s servant. 

Special features on the disc include a trio of musical outtakes, a menu of song selections, and a theatrical trailer. 

The Tender Trap (1955) 

Frank Sinatra sets an easygoing tone from the first shot of The Tender Trap. He ambles towards the camera across a wide, empty landscape, singing the title tune with his characteristic warmth, inviting you into his orbit. He plays a charming talent agent up to his eyeballs in women, but lacking fidelity or an understanding of true intimacy. An old friend (David Wayne) comes to stay with him on a break from his own marriage, Sinatra begins to think he might be more serious about a television orchestra violin player (Celeste Holm), and then suddenly he meets Julie (Debbie Reynolds), a singer who claims to have her dream life all mapped out. 

It could all be a silly trifle good for passing a couple hours, but there’s a scene that elevates all the romantic nonsense. Sinatra watches Reynolds float through the title tune, without a hint of its meaning reaching her. He sits at the piano and puts the tune under his loving care, as he does, and she understands immediately what he is trying to communicate. It is the template for the rest of their relationship: he demonstrates that he is capable of emotional depth and she realizes that life and love can’t be planned out like a dinner party. According to Reynolds, that was precisely the way Sinatra himself approached a song himself and that as her friend he helped her to understand and more deeply absorb the feeling in lyrics. 

Special features on the disc include the featurette Frank in the Fifties, which includes great commentary from Reynolds, two excerpts from the television show The MGM Parade, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review.

Jun 2, 2021

A Peek at the Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume Exhibit at MoPop


I attended an inspiring preview of the Walt Disney Archives’ Heroes and Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume exhibit yesterday at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. While the collection focuses on pieces from films made within the past few decades, I was pleasantly surprised to find several nods to classic Disney.
There are seventy pieces in the collection, including works by celebrated designers like Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood. Glorious gowns dominate, with an extensive tableau of dresses from various productions of Cinderella, a trio of eccentric pieces featured in A Wrinkle in Time (2018), and the unusually detailed costume Angeline Jolie wore as Maleficent.
The oldest piece in the collection is Julie Andrews’ traveling costume from the original Mary Poppins (1964), which is charmingly displayed with the famous bird head umbrella. I was also delighted to see a dress Bette Davis wore in Return from Witch Mountain (1978). As much as I loved the oceans of tulle and finery around me, I got chills seeing something my acting heroine wore.
I loved the way the Hero and Villain concept was presented. In addition to separate “Good” and “Evil” sections, there was a category called Spaces Between (because we all have a soft spot for Maleficent and The Evil Queen). There was also the Heroes vs. Villains section which showcased a series of duos facing off: from the rugged garb of Gaston and The Beast, to the strikingly detailed gowns worn by Susan Sarandon and Amy Adams as Queen Narissa and Giselle in Enchanted (2007).
In a room adjacent to the main exhibit, there are several costume sketches on the wall, with looks from many lesser known Disney classics including Summer Magic (1963) and Those Calloways (1965). There’s even a sketch from the Zorro television show. The room also includes the Magic Mirror feature which enables visitors to “try on” various costumes digitally. 

It’s a fascinating exhibit, presented with elegance and ingenuity. As with other works of art, the experience of seeing a costume up close can be deeply moving. In a mass-produced world, it’s exciting to see garments created with such care and attention to detail. In addition to having been on the backs of great stars, they are mini masterpieces, worthy of their own glory. 

Tickets for the exhibit are available now. It opens on June 5, with a MoPop member preview on June 4. Check out the official exhibit page for information about a series of Zoom presentations, including a chat with costume designers, a virtual cosplay workshop, and an Enchanted watch-along.

On Blu-ray: The Bermuda Depths (1978), The Isle of the Dead (1945), and Doctor X (1932)

I recently enjoyed a trio of horror/fantasy films new to Blu-ray from Warner Archive. While they are dramatically different stories, they each evoke suspense and mystery in intriguingly quirky ways. 

Bermuda Depths (1978) 

Watching and then re-watching this Rankin/Bass television production (yes, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Rankin/Bass) was an interesting experience in the power of outside influence in changing perspective. I went into it expecting a monster movie, and was a bit disappointed to find a more dreamy fantasy with hints of romance and horror. While I enjoyed the beauty of the cinematography and the appealing cast led by Burl Ives, Carl Weathers and Connie Sellecca, it left me a little cold. Then I read a few fan reviews and I was stunned to find that many viewers had first seen the film as children and had been haunted and mesmerized by it ever since. Their experience watching the movie was so dramatically different from mine that I decided to give it another chance. Watching it again with a more childlike sense of wonder, I caught a bit of its magic, not as strong as those who saw it when they were young, but enough to appreciate its mysterious appeal. 

Special features on the disc include an international theatrical version of the film, and an audio commentary by Amanda Reyes and Lance Vaughan that effectively captures the wonder of this film that captivated so many young viewers.
Isle of the Dead (1945) 

A lesser known entry among the horror films produced by Val Lewton, this one is a slow burn. It doesn’t offer thrills until its last moments, but this chiller about an island isolated by quarantine and haunted by fear of dark spirits keeps you on edge. Elements of Greek folklore give the story of a peasant who suspects a young woman of possessing evil powers added texture. Ellen Drew is appealingly grounded as the suspected malevolent presence and Boris Karloff, Katherine Emery, and Skelton Knaggs are charismatic stand-outs in a uniformly fascinating cast. 

Special features on the disc include commentary by Dr. Steve Haberman and a theatrical trailer.

Doctor X (1932) 

It always astounds me how dramatically a great restoration can change the experience of watching a movie. The new 4k restoration of this two-strip Technicolor chiller is a perfect example of the way it elevates the experience. I’d always looked upon this horror flick directed by Michael Curtiz as an amusing enough comedy-tinged time killer, but a sharper image and better color composition brought out the horrific elements, making it a much moodier and ghoulish experience. I was mesmerized by moments I’d never noticed before, like a blue-green shot of the moon or the rosy hue of Fay Wray’s complexion in contrast to the monster that menaces her. 

An especially robust selection of special features includes a separately filmed black and white version of the film which has been unavailable for thirty years, the featurette The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz, a before/after restoration reel from UCLA, commentaries by Scott MacQueen and Alan K. Rode, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review.