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.