Dec 31, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up

This month, after being much busier with my own podcast, I finally got caught up on some episodes that I’d been saving on my “to-listen” list for a while. All episode titles link to the show: 

Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast
May 11, 2015 

Gilbert Gottrfried recently reposted this amusing and enlightening conversation with Michael Nesmith in celebration of the Monkee’s farewell performance, which took place in Los Angeles in November. Now it stands as a wonderful tribute to a man who could have been a dutiful puppet for a television rock band, but who offered so much more as a musician, songwriter, music video innovator, and generally witty man. He also shares the story of how his mom invented Liquid Paper, which is also impressive.
Morbid: A True Crime Podcast 
November 24, 2021 

Though I’ve read multiple books about the production history of Wizard of Oz (1939), there were still several new-to-me facts about the turbulent production of this musical classic here. I loved how the hosts heavily sourced interviews with the film’s stars to tell the story; it gave the narrative a personal and authentic feeling.

The Brattle Film Podcast
October 18, 2021 

There have been some great interviews this year with Kier-La Janisse, director of the essential folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), but this one is especially interesting because there are so many great film recommendations.

You’re Dead to Me
October 14, 2021 

I was struck by the warmth of this conversation about the life of Paul Robeson. He gets his props as a towering artist and a remarkable person. At the same time, his wife Eslanda also receives praise for her endurance as the spouse and manager of a busy and often unfaithful man (eventually they would address that issue by having an open marriage). It’s a well-balanced portrait.

Dec 29, 2021

On Blu-ray: 1933 Double Feature Mary Stevens, M.D. and Dinner at Eight

I was fascinated by the differences between a pair of films from 1933 I watched recently on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive. One is the efficient Warner Bros. melodrama Mary Stevens, M.D., starring Kay Francis and a cast full of the snappy, sharp-witted players who brought the studio success in the early thirties. The other, Dinner at Eight, is a lavish production filled with the biggest names at MGM Studios, though the young Jean Harlow stole the whole movie from her more experienced costars. 

Mary Stevens, M.D. features one of Francis’ best performances. She’s a young doctor who sets up shop with her former classmate and close friend Don (an adequate Lyle Talbot). He quickly gets tired of fighting to keep their pediatric practice afloat and marries politician’s daughter Lois (Thelma Todd, underused, but always welcome) so that he can secure the wealth and position he wants to enjoy without working to attain it. Predictably, that doesn’t go well for him. 

At first, it seems that the film is going to be all about Mary trying to find patients who aren’t horrified by the prospect of a lady doctor. It quickly dips into melodrama though, with illicit love, babies born out of wedlock, and deadly disease all complicating her life. It could be silly, but Francis is so sincere and as her nurse sidekick, Glenda Farrell keeps things zipping along when they could get maudlin. The film is particularly pre-code in the way the characters view Mary’s troubles with sympathy instead of scolding her for her sins, though it could be argued she is punished for her indiscretions.

My perspective of Dinner at Eight has changed dramatically over the years. Jean Harlow has been the one constant. As the fabulous-tacky nouveau riche Kitty Packard, she overshadows her illustrious cast mates, among them Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and the beloved Marie Dressler. Her crackling comic performance makes me constantly forget that this film is as much a drama as a comedy. 

Over the years, I’ve overcome the disorientation that comes from the intense busyness the film evokes and honed in on other performances, like the charming resignation of Dressler as a former stage star with financial troubles and the mix of bravado and impotence in John Barrymore’s fading matinee idol (he has a moment of brave vulnerability where he actually whimpers like a child). Burke is also a shallow, oblivious delight, devastated by the increasing disaster her dinner party is becoming while life and death struggles unfold around the bubble of self-involvement in which she exists. Her transition to a more aware, mature perspective is remarkably believable; she keeps the high pitch of her social climbing persona, while just beneath the surface a new decency emerges. MGM stars Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, and Karen Morley are also on-board with their best performances.

Reportedly Harlow and Dressler became close on set and had discussed starring together in a comedy. What a shame the older comedian died in 1934 and that never came to pass.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 27, 2021

On Blu-ray: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long in Ron Howard's Night Shift (1982)


As lightweight as it can be, Night Shift (1982) is a notable film for many reasons: it was Ron Howard’s directorial debut and Michael Keaton’s break-out role, in addition to being an opportunity for Henry Winkler and Shelley Long to show other facets of their talent in the era where they were playing their most famous television roles (Happy Days and Cheers respectively). I watched the film on a new Warner Archive Blu-ray and found that while it hasn’t dated well in a lot of ways, it’s a decent showcase for its stars. 

Winkler is Chuck Lumley a burned-out Wall Street drop-out who finds life easier to take working the night shift at the city morgue. He’s a timid and terrified man, refusing to ever stand up for himself or recognize that he’s not really in love with his neurotic, food-obsessed fiancée. When the irritating but oddly alluring Bill Blazejowski (Michael Keaton) starts working with him, he shakes up his life in an often uncomfortable, but ultimately necessary way. Part of the shake-up involves Chuck's neighbor Belinda Keaton (Shelley Long) a sex worker in peril because her pimp has been tossed through a basketball hoop, from several stories up (as is depicted with an oddly humorous tone in the opening scene). 

Bill suggests that he and Chuck provide protection, fair wages, and a better life for the women Belinda’s pimp has left behind. It’s a terrible idea, but the immediate benefits conceal that from all. The view of relationships, women, and sex work here is solidly 1982. 

The score is equally lacking in progressive artistry, at least from the start. Burt Bacharach was a genius, but the music in the first half of the film feels like several cheesy variations on Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. When the focus shifts to romance though, an early instrumental version of That’s What Friends are For (a few years before it would be a monster fundraiser for AIDS research via Dionne Warwick and Friends), and which Rod Stewart sings in the closing credits, beautifully enhances the gentler aspects of the film. 

While Winkler comes off as a little bland, he’s also sweetly relatable in the way he does his best, but gets overwhelmed by the world around him. Keaton plays a character who should be unbearable, but he’s got this alluring energy which sells you on him no matter how grating he can be. Every charismatic quirk that would make him a star explodes here, announcing a star with an inevitable rise. Long is equally charming and I wondered, as I often have, why she didn’t get more of a chance to demonstrate her appeal in this way in the movies (while she had a couple of flops that sank her film career in the eighties, the famously easygoing Winkler’s later comments about finding her difficult to work with might also offer a clue). 

Overall it’s a charming, light comedy romance, made a little more interesting with the inclusion of great character parts, including Howard’s brother Clint Howard and the always magnetic Joe Spinell as a sleazy club owner. It’s worth a watch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 24, 2021

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 20, 2021

On Blu-ray: Dustin Hoffman Plays a Struggling Ex-Con in Straight Time (1978)

Straight Time (1978) offers a complex take on the life of an ex-con. It recognizes the failure of the system and a man. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, an ex-con on parole after six years in prison. With his first taste of freedom he is optimistic, pursuing employment, romance, and community with a weary sort of enthusiasm. Almost immediately he finds himself in trouble again though, partly because he doesn’t follow the terms of his release, but significantly also because his parole officer (a perfectly cast M. Emmet Walsh) doesn’t trust or believe in him.

Based on No Beast So Fierce, a book by ex-con Edward Bunker, Straight Time has all the imprecise messiness of real life. It is a world of rundown apartment buildings and beat-up cars. Existence is uneasy and made more difficult by the choices of its essentially well-meaning characters. It’s  also a great showcase for the early work of the kind of actors that always deliver: in addition to Walsh there is Harry Dean Stanton, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, and Kathy Bates all moving in early roles. 

Max meets up again with his old friend Willy (Busey) and his wife Selma (Bates) immediately senses trouble. She tells Max not to come around anymore; she’s hopeful that her husband has finally gotten himself together, but she also seems aware that it is far too easy for him to be led astray. There’s a scene where they’re seated around the kitchen table and Willy lashes out at their son (his own child Jake Busey) and is immediately regretful. You feel the hopelessness of this man with no self-control. 

Max is also this way. He constantly makes bad decisions, driven by his refusal to accept any point of view but his own. When he flirts with employment office counselor Jenny (Russell, too young and attractive for the role, but mesmerizing), you know she is being set up for heartbreak. When he suggests they skip out on a dinner check because he doesn’t want her to pay for it and he’s broke, he is telling her who he is, but she doesn’t see, or refuses to see the red flag. 

Through it all, Max isn’t a terribly sympathetic character. You feel for him as he is battered by a dehumanizing system, but it’s clear he is incapable of considering the needs of others until it is too late. The one notable exception to that is a relief, because it shows that Max is not a total monster. It’s mild comfort in a bleak, but engrossing film.

Special features on the disc include a commentary track with Dustin Hoffman and director Ulu Grosbard, the vintage featurette Straight Time: He Wrote It for Criminals, and a trailer. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 15, 2021

Argentine Noir on DVD/Blu-ray: The Bitter Stems (1956) and The Beast Must Die (1952)

I’ve long been aware that if I want to find a new treasure trove of classic films, I must find a way to explore a wider range of foreign classic cinema. Fortunately Flicker Alley has made that task much easier with the release of a pair of intriguing Argentine films noir on DVD/Blu-ray. The Bitter Stems/Lost Tallos Amargos (1956) and The Best Must Die/La Bestia Debe Morir (1952) have a lot going for them, from appealing and talented stars and gorgeous production value to a satisfying mixture of familiar noir themes and specific cultural characteristics. 

Re-discovered by the Film Noir Foundation and restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive these films offer solid storytelling and a window into another world. 

The Bitter Stems/Los Tallos Amargos (1956) is the more stylized of the two and with the strongest noir elements. It is the tale of a cash-strapped Buenos Aires-based newsman Alfredo who is talked into starting a shady correspondence journalism school with cheerful Hungarian refugee Paar. While he is uneasy about what is essentially a scam operation, he throws himself into the enterprise, partly because he knows his partner is desperate for money to save his family from their war-struck nation. 

There’s an extra wrinkle to Alfredo’s willingness to loosen his moral code: he also feels guilty that he declined military service himself with the excuse that he had to take care of his mother and sister. He feels deep down that he was actually finding a reason to indulge in his cowardice. By helping Paar, he hopes to redeem himself. This is why when he thinks his partner is deceiving him, he takes it badly and loses his sense of reason, a very noir situation. 

Alfredo’s neurosis and guilt come to life in a series of moody moments in which he narrates his frustrations and in a stunning, surrealist dream sequence that makes the production feel lusher than your typical crime flick. The film is adept at putting you into the thoughts of this essentially good, but deeply disturbed character. 

Murder and the complications that come from it are a hallmark of noir, but that is rarely explored with the kind of heartrending regret expressed here. It is firmly noir in tone, but suffused with love and yearning. Based on a novel of the same title by journalist Adolfo Jasca which plays with the themes of Crime and Punishment, its screen adaptation was a hit when first released in Argentina and it is richly deserving of this rediscovery. 

Bonus materials on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Mueller, a conversation with Argentine film archivist and historian Fernando Martín Peña, audio commentary track by Imogen Sara Smith, a profile of composer Astor Piazzolla by Steven C. Smith 

In The Beast Must Die/La Bestia Debe Morir (1952), a family tragedy takes on the flavor of noir in a story of revenge set in the upper class. Mystery writer and widower Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta) loses his son to a hit and run accident and focuses all his energy on seeking revenge. When Felix learns the identity of the killer, a wealthy, abusive brute (Guillermo Battaglia) who rules his world with terrifying cruelty, he takes on a new identity and infiltrates the man’s family life. 

Based on a novel by British author Cecil Day-Lewis (father to actor Daniel Day-Lewis), the adaptation is distinctly and delightfully Latin in execution. It explodes into action right away, full of big emotions and chaotic twists. This vigor is balanced by Menta’s calm. Both pretty and handsome, his is a remarkable presence, and he grounds the more frantic milieu generated by his nemesis. 

Much like The Bitter Stems, longing and love for family play a strong role in the film. It also has a spiritual feel, particularly in the end, which is unusual for a production which plays with the tropes of noir. 

Bonus materials on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Mueller, a conversation with Argentine film and historian Fernando Martín Peña and Daniel Viñoly (son of director Barreto), and an audio commentary by Guido Segal. 

Both films also come with booklets which offer useful context on the films and the time and place in which they were made. 

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing copies of the films for review.

Dec 10, 2021

On Blu-ray: Stephen Sondheim & Anthony Perkins Take Real-Life Games to the Screen in The Last of Sheila (1973)

When I learned that the hugely influential composer Stephen Sondheim had died, I immediately went to watch Dean Jones' soul-stirring performance of Being Alive from the original cast recording session of Company name. After being suitably destroyed by that, I wanted a change of mood, and I found it in a Warner Archive Blu-ray I happened to have on hand for review: The Last of Sheila (1973). Co-written with friend Anthony Perkins, this was the only time Sondheim attempted a screenplay and it is a winner. 

The Last of Sheila takes place for the most part on a yacht. A Hollywood producer has gathered an assortment of friends, or at least industry acquaintances, on his luxurious vessel on the anniversary of the hit-and-run death of his wife, Sheila. Unbeknownst to the guests, he has devised a game that he has created in hopes of forcing the criminal driver, which he guesses is among them, to confess. As often happens with elaborate games, things unfold in a way dramatically different from his plans. 

The story grew out of the real life games that Perkins and Sondheim would create for their friends. They were so elaborate and exciting, that the pair were encouraged to create a story that played off that excitement. It’s a great tale, twisty, funny, suspenseful, and always slightly confusing because it’s so full of details and unexpected detours. 

As marvelous as the script is, it is the cast that makes this production exciting. They all deserve to be named: James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch all have their moments, which is remarkable when there are so many vying for the spotlight. 

The commentary in the special features (a DVD carry-over) is a must-listen; on one track Raquel Welch carefully and prettily describes her experience, while on the other Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon have a blast (you hear plenty of that famous Cannon laugh) discussing their craft, their love for (most) of the actors, and the messy excitement of making the film. It is well known that Welch made life difficult for everyone on set (Mason famously commented on his disapproval of her behavior) and Cannon and Benjamin don’t name names, but they do make allusions and cannily avoid saying anything particularly nice or nasty (at least directly) about Welch while praising everyone else. 

With or without the commentary, the film is a lot of fun and must be watched multiple times to be fully appreciated. From tricky plot points to the delightful flourishes of a lot of fabulous performances, it has much to offer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 8, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Marx Brothers at Their Chaotic Best in Night at the Opera (1935)


As with classics like A Day at the Races (1937) and Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935) showcases the Marx Brothers at their merry, anarchic best. I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

The opera is the ideal setting for the Marx Brothers brand of comedy. There’s a lot to play with: the audience, the stage, and the performers, not to mention the snobbery around this art form that deserves a good Marx Brothers-style puncturing. 

As an intensely self-serious patron of the arts, Margaret Dumont is the bridge into the story. In the first scene Groucho gives her a good roasting. On the other hand, the singing lovers played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, as sickly sweet as they can be, are presented as heroic artists who live to perform. However wild and unformed the brothers may seem as they roast the snobs, they are determined in their quest to let art thrive. 

I think that’s why this is one of my favorite Marx Brothers films, because they never make the mistake of taking themselves too seriously, but they are also oddly valorous. Even Harpo with his impulsive mischief, as pure id incarnate, stands for something in his loopy way. 

The most famous scene in the film features a tiny stateroom which becomes increasingly, and hilariously packed full of people, all of them certain they need to be there. It’s rightfully adored, but I am most impressed with the opera house finale, which features an increasingly startled audience and Harpo swinging from the rafters like a circus aerialist gone rogue. It is remarkable in the way it sustains its humor, perfectly paced, and full of gags that hit just right. 

That pacing is what distinguishes the Marx Brothers. They understood how to strike a good rhythm in their comedy: where to pick up the pace, when to stick with a joke, and perhaps most importantly, when to slow down and take time with word play. For every chaotic scene of physical humor, there’s the balance of standing around calmly ripping apart lengthy theatrical contracts and discussing the “sanity clause.” 

Special features on the disc include commentary by Leonard Maltin, Groucho Marx on The Hy Gardner Show, a theatrical trailer, the vintage shorts Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West, Sunday Night at the Trocadero, and Robert Benchley’s How to Sleep, and best of all, the documentary Remarks on Marx, in which Kitty Carlisle demonstrates that she may have been sweet on the screen, but she was nobody’s fool. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the movie for review.

Dec 3, 2021

Book Review--Charles Boyer: The French Lover


Charles Boyer: The French Lover 
John Baxter 
University Press of Kentucky, 2021 

I love Charles Boyer. Several of his films are among my favorites. He’s one of those actors who knows how to deliver, whatever the quality of the role or film. Despite this, I’ve never thought much about him. That’s why I enjoyed John Baxter’s new biography of the French actor, which digs about as deep as possible into the life of this mysterious man. 

Why hasn’t Boyer seen a revival or lasting widespread interest in his career? Baxter pins that on lack of advocacy. An only child, with only one son who pre-deceased him, there simply wasn’t someone close to the actor to boost his work over the years. 

That’s a shame, because Boyer pulled off an unusually diverse career. In a rare feat, he moved between Hollywood and Europe throughout his career, making bonafide classics in all the great film industries of the Western world, in addition to finding success on both Broadway and West End stages, radio, television, and even as a recording artist. It is a little astonishing that the work alone hasn’t elevated him more in classic film circles when it includes titles like Mayerling (1936), Gaslight (1944), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), and Love Affair (1939), and that’s only the cream of a rich, enduring career. 

While his acting life was not without its challenges, there’s a certain smoothness to Boyer’s career. His success almost feels inevitable. While it took him a while to find his stride, he steadily moved from a childhood in the peaceful community of Figeac to the theatre and films. He had a knack for making the right connections and understanding how to overcome his flaws. There was luck, but also a steady push towards his goals. Part of that success comes from his adaptability; when films didn’t work, he turned to the stage, when television arrived, he not only accepted the medium, but became a producer and made a fortune. 

In fact, most of Boyer’s life story feels steady. There are plenty of successes, but there’s never one breakout moment where he finds stardom, but rather a deliberate, but certain progression towards fame, acclaim, and wealth. The same can be said for his friendships and his community involvement. He had a remarkable amount of control over his life, from the shape of his career to his relationships, including an enduring marriage to his wife Pat. 

The one place where Boyer faltered was with his son Michael. He and Pat never found space in their lives for their only child. Left to his own devices, with more wealth than parental involvement at his disposal, the younger Boyer never found his place in life and eventually committed suicide. 

Boyer would follow the same path as his son. When Pat became ill with cancer and passed away after a relatively brief illness, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and joined her. His family losses are startling given the relative smoothness of the rest of his life. 

This simple, but engrossing life story unfolds with efficiency and a nice amount of detail that reveals the man behind the star persona. It is a well-written book, though there are a few obvious inaccuracies around casting (an odd mix-up of Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne roles) that made me a bit wary about how straight the facts were overall. It is in essence an engrossing book though; I found myself wanting to read more, but at the same time, the story felt complete. 

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

Dec 1, 2021

Watching Classic Movies Podcast: Talking GIFs with GIPHY Editor Tiffany Vazquez


Love all the classic film GIFs online? That is thanks in part to my guest, GIPHY Editor Tiffany Vazquez, who has made a career of bringing brief, but potent moving images to millions of users. 

While Tiffany loves sharing movie history and fun clips with the masses, there’s so much more to her work, from ways to make life easier to highlighting vibrant moments from the past. We had a great talk about the magnificent power and variety of GIFs.


The show is available on Spotify, PocketCasts, Breaker, Stitcher, Anchor, Google and Radio Public.

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Season Three coming in 2022. Stay tuned!