Dec 29, 2022

Review: A trio of fascinating books about Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich 
2022 (originally published 1989) 

Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories Compiled by Jean-Jacques Naudet 
Captions by Maria Riva 
with Werner Sudendorf 

Marlene Dietrich’s ABC’s: Wit, Wisdom, and Recipes 
Marlene Dietrich 
Updated Edition 2022 (originally published 1961)  

All from University Press of Kentucky 

It took me a while to decide what I had to say about the University Press of Kentucky’s release of a trio of books about Marlene Dietrich this year, one new, the others reissues. I got a bit hung up on finding the truth of the woman in these publications, when what I truly loved about them was that they communicated her essence, which simply put is what gave her star power. Together, they tell a varied story about a complex woman, revealing different facets about the always vocal star. 
For a more complete story, I suggest reading Maria Riva’s memoir of her mother, but these three books are each essential in their own way. 

As with any memoir, Marlene by Marlene Dietrich tells what the actress was willing to tell, embellished by how she would like to be. She writes in a dramatic, almost poetic fashion, which is similar in style to the song introductions she made when she toured as a singer later in life. 

Dietrich goes into detail about her childhood, her rise to fame, and seems to have been especially affected by her service as an entertainer for the troops during World War II. It's an interesting read and as a story of her life it presents her essence well. I think the truth can be pretty well divined in reading this and Riva’s memoir, but the point of the book is how fascinating it and its author can be.

Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories
is the new release of the bunch. It’s a gorgeous tribute to her aesthetic, which was a unique combination of the elegantly feminine and dapper masculine. An introduction provides context for the images to follow, and captions by Maria Riva lend a richness to the images, which consist of a healthy helping of classic Dietrich photos and color pics of several of her dresses and accessories. The garments are a marvel of style and construction and a visual treat for any fan of fashion.

I was most excited to finally read Marlene Dietrich’s ABC’s: Wit, Wisdom, and Recipes. This book is far more revealing than Dietrich’s memoir. It shows the actress was truly the devoted hausfrau she was rumored to be, deeply respectful of the workers who supported her in her craft, and generally kind at heart, though with a bit of vinegar she doesn’t always try to conceal. The extent of her enormous love for herself is rare to see even in a star; she knew her value and wasn’t afraid to speak about it. For that reason, this is an enormously entertaining book. 

While my excitement over finally reading the ABC’s gives that book an edge in my mind, I can’t say which of these publications I find most essential. Overall, it’s a matter of taste and what aspects of the star the reader finds most intriguing. The full picture here is that Dietrich worked in a profession of artifice but enjoyed a life with down-to-earth pursuits as much as the glamour, maybe even more so. Individually and combined, they present the legend well. 

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing copies of the books for review.

Dec 24, 2022

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night


It's been my holiday tradition for years to share a scene from Lady on a Train (1945) in which Deanna Durbin sings a beautiful version of Silent Night. Well not this year, the video has been removed from YouTube, but a recording of Durbin singing the song is still up, so I'm sharing that! Go see the film too if you haven't, it's a lot of fun.

Season's Greetings and Happy New Year to you all.

Dec 20, 2022

On Blu-ray: A Stunning Cast in John Huston's The Night of the Iguana (1964)


I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Night of the Iguana (1964) and I’ve always gone into each viewing thinking of it as an Ava Gardner film. Which isn’t entirely off-base. It’s one of her best; she gets the chance to truly act, still gorgeous, but far from the glossy movie queen image that brought her fame. 

This is much more than a Gardner flick though. It’s full of incredible performances, brought to their heights with the support of director John Huston. It’s best described as a great ensemble piece. I was reminded of that when I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Based on a stage play by Tennessee Williams, Night of the Iguana is a simple story that covers the breadth of human need and desire, as is typically case with the playwright’s works. Richard Burton is a defrocked clergyman making his living as a tour guide. He trundles up to a cheap Mexican hotel, with a bus full of confused school teachers and one 16-year-old (Sue Lyon) who is determined to seduce him. There he reconnects with the owner of the ragged establishment and widow (Ava Gardner) of an old friend he’d hope to see. Soon they are joined by an artist (Deborah Kerr) and her ailing poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti), who have no money, but hope their skills will pay their bills from day-to-day. 

What follows is a series of emotional collisions, between the tour guests and Burton (Grayson Hall is especially indignant as their leader), the sexually charged Lyon and Burton, Gardner and Burton, Gardner and the constantly cash-poor Kerr, and at great length, Kerr and Burton. All of these interactions vibrate with the messiness of life. The misunderstandings, missed connections, frustrations, and chaos that come with being human come to life in that particular way Williams had of bringing truth and high drama together. Everyone is at their best here; the set stories that Huston was a sympathetic and encouraging director are shown to be accurate on the screen. 

What struck me on this watch though was Burton and Kerr. They have several frank discussions which I’ve come to see as the most profound strength of the film. These two strangers who have spent their lives staying within certain boundaries open themselves up to each other and enjoy a free and deep emotional intimacy. It’s moving, sad, and in a lot of ways amusing to see them connect and, in a way, hold confession for each other. 

I’m grateful for this film and the many ways it works as entertainment and something a little deeper. It’s a great showcase for its cast and the prime example of how lucky we are that a director as complex and intelligent as Huston had the power of studio budgets and support for as many years as he did. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and the illuminating documentary shorts On the Trail of the Iguana and Night of the Iguana: Huston’s Gamble. Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 16, 2022

Video Book Review (w/Transcript)--TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema

I had a great time making this video review of one of my favorite books of the year. There were so many wonderful surprises in TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It is a well-written, loving tribute. If you'd rather read the review than watch it, there's a transcript below



What makes a film “cult”? Why do cult films matter? These are questions of never-ending interest to me and I recently got a little more clarification about it from a great new book. 

 There are several things to love about TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It’s a varied and entertaining book, perhaps more varied than you’d expect a book of this nature to be. It’s not your typical cult movie tome. 

Based on choices from Turner Classic Movies’ long-running Underground program, there’s a lot of knowledge and excitement about unusual and unconventional cinema to be found here. This is the first book about cult film I’ve read that was written by women. Millie de Chirico is a long-time TCM programmer and is best known for programming for the Underground and serving as host of the channel’s Slumberground YouTube series. She’s also cohost of the I Saw What You Did Podcast, and I enjoyed having her as my guest on the Watching Classic Movies podcast. Quatoyia Murry is a writer and will be a familiar face to viewers of Slumberground as she has made several appearances on the show. 

While de Chirico and Murry split duties on selecting and writing about films for the book, the entries are not marked by author. They are so similar in thinking and style that I wasn’t able to tell who wrote about which film unless I knew previously about a certain favorite (yes, Millie definitely wrote about Elizabeth Taylor in Secret Ceremony). 

The movies are divided into five appropriately rebellious categories: It’s Crime Time, Domestic Disturbances, Fright Club, Rebellion and Youth Movements, and the bizarre topper: Visual Delights and Other Strange Mind Melters which describes a lot of cult films. 

While there are plenty of titles here that will be familiar to cult film fans, there’s also a lot of unusual, lesser-known choices, including several movies that I’d never even heard of, let alone watched. I loved the resulting variety, which, while it certainly included what would generally be considered best-of cult favorites, was also full of personal choices. As a result, I felt more invested in this book. There’s an honesty to the choices because they come from a true love for the films and it gave me more trust in the new-to-me titles. 

I loved the book’s forward by Patton Oswalt. What a perfect choice, Oswalt’s own book about his love for movies, Silver Screen Fiend would be a perfect companion to this one. He writes about cult films, “creating a tiny space of worship and adulation” and I agree that this is one of the important qualities that unifies all movies of this nature. 

De Chirico and Murry also take that almost reverential tone. They respect these wild cinematic journeys. There’s no “so-bad-it’s-good” mockery. And that makes sense, because if a movie is entertaining enough to draw a cult following and inspire several rewatches, then it may not be conventionally good, but it is good. 

I found even the entries from familiar films to be interesting, because going beyond plot descriptions and analysis, each selection is put in perspective according to its time. You get an idea of how different movies challenged perceptions, pushed boundaries, and brought new ideas to the world into which they were released. That can be good to know, because when a movie is familiar or is early in countering ideas that have long since changed with the times, we can start to take it for granted. There’s always a feeling that the authors are explaining why a choice matters. 

I found the sidebars in the book to be useful. They expand your understanding of the choices in a variety of ways, so that you end up with a lot more than 50 films to consider. They come in a few general categories: OMG Moments, a Spotlight On section about a specific actor or filmmaker, Genre-ly Speaking which includes titles related to the entry for more viewing ideas, so you can check out more Canuxploitation for example. 

If you are familiar with any of the books TCM has published in partnership with Running Press, you’ll recognize the format here. Basically, design is handled with as much care as content. There are lots of film stills and movie posters and the layout feels cult without straining to be hip, which is good, because trying to be cool is extremely uncool. 

A small word of warning, I did notice a plot detail that had I seen it before I watched the film, it would have changed my experience in a significant way. Though I can’t recall seeing any others, I wondered if there were some I had missed. It isn’t a big issue, and I think the authors meant to be careful of spoilers, but tread carefully if that is something that matters to you. And I say that as someone who generally doesn’t worry about spoilers because I am usually more interested in the way things happen than the specific twists and turns of the plot. 

This was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year, so I thought I would enjoy it, but it exceeded my expectations. There’s such a high level of care here in choice and execution, a feeling that the authors wanted to make sure every film, star, and filmmaker got due respect. I was also stunned by how much I expanded my to-watch list. I realized how narrowly I had been defining what makes a film cult. In some respects the idea of what fits that category has become the most deadly thing of all: conventional. These choices pushed boundaries just like the films themselves and I appreciated that. 

 Reels/TikToks I have made about films in the book: 

Dec 10, 2022

YouTube Video--A Film Noir/Mystery Christmas: 6 Classic Movies to Watch


I've been having a great time making Reels/TikToks lately, so I decided to go a little longer on YouTube. There's a lot of noir/mystery flicks that feature Christmas. I shared some of my favorites:


Nov 30, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: November Round-up

I loved the variety of my listening this month and completing another season of my podcast, which gets more interesting to do all the time. Episode titles link to the show: 

Rarified Heir Podcast 
November 8, 2022 (repost) 

I was stunned to hear how much James Coburn IV sounds like his father. The similarity was so strong that I never quite had it out of my mind as I listened to this episode. Coburn has also been working in the industry, in sound design, so he has a lot of understanding of his father’s business in addition to many fascinating memories about a man who he admits freely was more about acting than parenting by a long shot.
The Plot Thickens: Pam Grier 
October 25, 2022 

Action heroine Pam Grier shares her life story in her typically candid way. It is as wild, rough, and moving as I would expect, though there are plenty of surprises. TCM has improved exponentially with each season of its podcast and this one has the most heart so far.
Micheaux Mission 
September 27, 2022 

I caught up with this old episode of Micheaux Mission because I wondered what they would think of this Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. movie that I recalled being awful. Turns out they feel the same way, but Len and Vince have great insight into Davis, his relationship with the Rat Pack members, the way he presented himself, and what a big talent he was compared to his peers. Movie talk starts about 58 minutes in.

I just finished an extra fun season of my own podcast. Loved the variety this time around: Latin/Hispanic artists, Maria Montez, Anna May Wong, Marion Davies, and Max Flesicher cartoons. It was a lot of fun and I invite you to listen and let me know what kinds of interviews you would like to hear in future episodes.

Nov 22, 2022

On Blu-ray: El Vampiro Negro, Long Unseen Argentenian Noir from Flicker Alley


It’s been a delight to see the steady trickle of Argentinian noir flicks coming out from Flicker Alley, thanks to the preservation efforts of UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation. Every film has been worthy of classic status and I’ve appreciated the additional insight in the DVD/Blu-ray special features for each set. Now joining the label’s The Bitter Stems (1956) and The Beast Must Die (1952) releases is the stylistically exciting El Vampiro Negro (1953). 

The film is an interpretation of M (1931), the Fritz Lang film about a child murderer that launched the career of Peter Lorre. Carryovers include the killer’s penchant for whistling Grieg and the basic plot of the tortured criminal who eludes the police, but faces street justice. Otherwise it is dramatically different as far as style and notable for the inclusion of a strong female point of view. 

Director Román Viñoly Barreto sets a surreal, nightmarish scene from the beginning, showing the tortured imaginings of professor, and killer Professor Ulber (Nathán Pinzón) as he takes a Rorschach test. Unexpectedly, that strange, dreamlike menace isn’t just a stylistic choice for the opening scene. The mood and style of these first moments carry over to a nightclub, the shadowy and unsettling world where Amalia (Olga Zubarry) sings so that she may pay for her daughter’s private school tuition. 

Barreto arranges the nightclub in tight tableaus, set in suffocating closeness. You feel the oppression of this night world; a place for escape that can also be a prison. It is adjacent to this setting that Amalia witnesses a man throwing a dead girl into a sewer. 

Traumatized, and wishing to keep her child away from scandal, Amalia attempts to stay out of the investigation, but is eventually drawn in with the same uncomfortable closeness of her professional world. This is due in part to the meddlesome concerns of inspector Dr. Bernard (Roberto Escalada), who scolds her for her profession without showing any empathy for the difficulty of her position. His attitude is in part because he is unable to have children with his wife (Gloria Castilla) who is dealing with her own limitations which are revealed gradually. While Bernard is not the killer, he is in many ways less sympathetic than Ulber, because of his selfishness and power to change his behavior. 

As the killer, Pinzón is less creepy than Lorre, and more a fearful, awkward man. The viewer is put in the position of feeling empathy for someone who has destroyed lives and thrust a community into terror. In the end, Amalia understands him better than Bernard, because the latter is not capable of understanding the Professor’s helplessness. 

It’s a fascinating film, gorgeous to look at, uncomfortable if intriguing to experience, and an even mix of straight suspense and the doom-laden feel of film noir. 

There’s a special feature in which film experts discuss the differences between the original M, the version filmed in Hollywood in 1951, and El Vampiro Negro. I agree with the consensus that each of these films are remarkable. While M stands above the other two in several ways, the Argentinian take on the story is outstanding and deeply satisfying if disturbing. 

Other special features on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Muller, audio commentary by archivist/historian Fernando Martin Pena, a booklet with photographs and an essay by Imogen Sara Smith, and a charming interview with Daniel Viñoly, son of the director. 

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

Nov 16, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast: Talking Fleischer Studios Cartoon Restoration and The Unlikely Social Media Star Koko the Ghost Clown with Fleischer Historian Ray Pointer and Rockin' Pins Owner Mauricio Alvarado

When I saw that a social media filter featuring the dancing ghost of Koko the Clown had gone viral, I had to know the story behind it. What I found was a great team that is working to preserve the timeless ‘toons of Max Fleischer, which featured Betty Boop, Popeye, Koko the Clown, and consisted of hundreds of fascinating animated shorts. This is my first dual interview on the show. Ray Pointer has been a Fleischer scholar for decades. He is the author of the essential Fleischer Studios tome The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer: American Animation Pioneer. Mauricio Alvarado is the owner of Rockin’ Pins, a merchandising company with licenses for several entertainment properties, including many Fleischer ‘toons characters, including Koko the Clown Ghost. The pair have worked in partnership with Jane Fleischer Reid, granddaughter of Max, to bring new attention these timeless ‘toons by funding restorations, hosting screenings, and spreading the word at conventions and other special events. I was deeply impressed with the knowledge and passion these two shared in our conversation. 

To support the Fleischer Cartoon Restoration Project, you can become a patron at Patreon 

Find all of the Fleischer 'Toons social media accounts at their LinkTree 

You can buy official Fleischer Studios merchandise (which helps support the restoration) and Ray Pointer's book at Rockin' Pins

This is a great interview with Ray Pointer, conducted by Jane Fleischer Reid, which goes into more detail about his book and Fleischer research.  

You can purchase Ray Pointer's DVD releases of Fleischer 'toons on his website.

The show is available on SpotifyPocketCastsBreakerStitcherAnchorGoogleRadio Public, and YouTube.

Watching Classic Movies podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts! If you are enjoying the show, please give it a 5-star review and share it with your friends.

Like the podcast? Want to hear more frequent episodes? Subscriptions are as low as 99 cents a month, click on the Support button here

Nov 9, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--Author of Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies Lara Gabrielle

My guest, Lara Gabrielle is the author of Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies. We talked about Davies career, which was more successful than rumor would have it, her unique and mysterious long-term relationship with William Randolph Hearst, the enormous good she did for friends, family, and the community, and how unraveling the myths about her is a crucial part of telling her story.

You can learn more about Lara’s book and how to buy it at University of California Press. 

Films discussed: 
Show People (1928) 
The Patsy (1928) 
The Cardboard Lover (1928) 
Five and Ten (1931) 
Blondie of the Follies (1932) 
The Bachelor Father (1931) 
Little Old New York (1923) 
When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922)

The show is available on SpotifyPocketCastsBreakerStitcherAnchorGoogleRadio Public, and YouTube.

Watching Classic Movies podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts! If you are enjoying the show, please give it a 5-star review and share it with your friends.

Like the podcast? Want to hear more frequent episodes? Subscriptions are as low as 99 cents a month, click on the Support button here

Nov 2, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast: Talking the Anna May Wong Quarter and The Trailblazing Star's Legacy with Author Paula Yoo

My guest, Paula Yoo is a screenwriter, producer, violinist and author of several books for young readers including the gorgeous picture book Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, with illustrations by Lin Wang. We talked about the significance of the new quarter featuring Wong, the first Asian American to be on US currency, her difficult, but fruitful career as a movie actress and how her story relates to the challenges we face as a society today. 

Films discussed: 
Picadilly (1929) 
The Toll of the Sea (1922) 

Other recommended films featuring Anna May Wong: 
Drifting (1923) 
The Thief of Bagdad (1924) 
Shanghai Express (1932) 
A Study in Scarlet (1933) 
Dangerous to Know (1938) 
Lady from Chungking (1942) 

Watching Classic Movies Reels featuring Asian American stars from Classic Hollywood: 

The show is available on SpotifyPocketCastsBreakerStitcherAnchorGoogleRadio Public, and YouTube.

Watching Classic Movies podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts! If you are enjoying the show, please give it a 5-star review and share it with your friends.

Like the podcast? Want to hear more frequent episodes? Subscriptions are as low as 99 cents a month, click on the Support button here

Oct 31, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Roundup

The highlight of my listening this month was a pair of fantastic star interviews, one with Nancy Olson of Sunset Blvd. (1950), the other with Pat Priest, who is best known for playing Marilyn on The Munsters. All episode titles link to the shows: 

Ticklish Business 
September 21, 2022 

Nancy Olson had a major role in one of the most celebrated films of all time, Sunset Blvd. (1950), but there’s so many other fascinating things about her life. This interview brought back all the excitement I felt seeing her before a screening of the film at TCM Classic Film Festival a few years ago. She’s so fresh and modern in her thinking.

That’s Classic! 
September 26, 2022 

This was a great interview with Pat Priest, who played Marilyn, “the normal one” on the original Munsters television show. She had an amazing career beyond that legendary program. I loved her Elvis stories.

Lovers Forever 
September 12, 2022 

Ava Gardner Museum board member Lora Stocker was a favorite guest on my own podcast, so I wasn’t surprised to love this episode about her career and the museum’s Ava Gardner Festival. She has endless passion for Gardner and I can relate.

NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour 
October 4, 2022 

This discussion about Blonde (2022), which featured Marilyn Monroe, but was not a biopic reinforced my decision to never see the controversial film which many fans of the actress found disrespectful and disturbing. Host Aisha Harris knows her classics and after listening to the episode, I felt like I was done with the issue.

Oct 26, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--Talking Queen of Technicolor: Maria Montez in Hollywood with Author Tom Zimmerman

My guest, Tom Zimmerman is the author of The Queen of Technicolor: Maria Montez in Hollywood

Montez was a unique star, imperious, but warm, not known for her acting ability, but skilled in committing completely to a role, whether in a skimpy costume for the six legendary Neverland films she made for Universal, or in a grittier setting, such as for her more noirish European roles. 

We talked about the magnetism, determination, and integrity of this remarkable woman. 

The Queen of Technicolor: Maria Montez in Hollywood by Tom Zimmerman, is a publication of University Press of Kentucky. There are links to several places where you can purchase the book on their website.

Films discussed: 

Boss of Bullion City (1940) (Maria’s first role) South of Tahiti (1941) (Maria’s breakout sarong role) 

The Universal Studios Neverland Films (not discussed individually): 
Arabian Nights (1942) 
White Savage (1943) 
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) 
Cobra Woman (1944) 
G*psy Wildcat (1944) 
Sudan (1945) 

Tangier (1946) 
Pirates of Monterey (1947) 
Wicked City (1949) 
Portrait of a Killer (1949)

The show is available on SpotifyPocketCastsBreakerStitcherAnchorGoogleRadio Public, and YouTube.

Watching Classic Movies podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts! If you are enjoying the show, please give it a 5-star review and share it with your friends.

Like the podcast? Want to hear more frequent episodes? Subscriptions are as low as 99 cents a month, click on the Support button here

Oct 19, 2022

Watching Classic Movies Podcast--Talking Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in Film with Author Luis Reyes


My guest, Luis Reyes, is the author of Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film. We talked about the changing representation of this varied and vibrant group in Hollywood, and artists from the popular to the underseen, while celebrating the fact that Latin and Hispanic people in film have long been an integral part of the industry with many towering accomplishments and innovations to offer.

Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film is available from Running Press

It's out of print, but I also highly recommend Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film which Reyes co-wrote with Peter Rubie. It can be hard to find, I had to borrow it from the library, but it is an impressive, extensive reference book and well worth tracking down. 

More books by Luis Reyes: 

Hawaii Movie and Television Book: Celebrating 100 Years of Film Production Throughout the Hawaiian (with Ed Rampell) 

Made in Mexico: Hollywood South of the Border 

Pearl Harbor in the Movies (with Ed Rampell)

The show is available on SpotifyPocketCastsBreakerStitcherAnchorGoogleRadio Public, and YouTube.

Watching Classic Movies podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts! If you are enjoying the show, please give it a 5-star review and share it with your friends.

Like the podcast? Want to hear more frequent episodes? Subscriptions are as low as 99 cents a month, click on the Support button here

Oct 15, 2022

National Hispanic Heritage Month: A YouTube Compilation


As National Hispanic American Heritage Month comes to a close in the US, I wanted to share a YouTube compilation I made of all of the Reels/TikToks I made in celebration of the event, in addition to a few others that fit the theme. There's a lot of amazing talent gathered here! You can also view them individually here: 

Oct 12, 2022

On Blu-ray: The Delightful Spooky Season Double Feature of Mark of the Vampire (1935) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

I had a blast watching a pair of spooky season favorites on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive. It was great to see two films I love looking and sounding as good as new. 

Director Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) Mark of the Vampire (1935) is most famous for an outrageous twist, one that alters the film so dramatically that I thought I’d never be able to watch it again after my first viewing. Instead it has become a favorite spooky season watch, because it has a lot more going for it than plot.

The cast of spooks is top notch, with the moody Carroll Borland an especially striking presence as the ultimate 1930s Goth girl, years before Vampira and Elvira. There’s also Bela Lugosi, still giving everything to his Dracula-style character after finding worldwide fame as the character in the 1930 Universal adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. 

I also appreciate the creativity behind the set and sound design. The whistling, moaning, ambience of the film’s soundtrack remains chillingly eerie to this day. By using a multi-layered soundscape instead of music, the movie evokes a more timeless feel. There’s also a great juxtaposition between the luxurious estate at the center of the daylight action and the cobweb and animal-filled castle down the road that comes to life at dusk. 

The central plot, about murder, an inheritance, and its beneficiary is essentially something to endure until you can get to the ghouls, though Lionel Barrymore and Leila Bennett contribute a great sense of camp. Mark of the Vampire is at its best when it is dialogue-free, with that creepy soundtrack casting its spell. Even though the meaning of everything is altered in the end, the sight of a moody, ghoulish Carol glowering at passerby and wandering in the dark, Lugosi grimacing, and spiders slithering up the wall are all great fun. I appreciated how well the sound and image were engineered for the Blu-ray, because those elements are especially important in a film like this one. 

Special features on the disc included commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, a theatrical trailer, the short A Thrill for Thelma, and the cartoon The Calico Dragon.
The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most beautifully-crafted films of the pre-Code era thanks to the deliberate work of director Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Silk Stockings). 

It’s a shame that actors are so rarely rewarded for their work in horror. In the title role(s) Fredric March more than earned his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Though he was at the beginning of a stunning career, it remains one of his most masterful performances, because he shows a deep understanding of the complex duality of his role. 

Maumoulian begins his film by showing the way Dr. Jekyll is perceived by the world. He uses a first person perspective to show him interacting with his deferential servants. Then he dramatically switches the camera to March, capturing his own appreciative self-regard before the look is mirrored in his audience at a lecture. In a few minutes you understand how important his reputation is to him and how much is at stake in this society that reveres him. 

One of Mamoulian’s most effective visual techniques is in the use of superimposition of images to mirror the passions in Jekyll/Hyde. He creates a sort of dreamlike mood as the doctor’s obsessions intertwine with his transformation into Hyde. It effectively puts the viewer both a little on edge and into Hyde/Jekyll’s thoughts. 

March’s acting in the transformation scenes is equally unsettling. In some respects he keeps it low-key, but his quiet, animalistic groans of pain have visceral power. It’s a stunning contrast to the elegance of his public persona; though you can see elements of that pain growing in him no matter how refined he aspires to appear. When the dam bursts and he is fully in Hyde mode, he embraces his newfound freedom with a mixture of joy and relief. 

As the unfortunate showgirl Ivy who is the victim of Hyde’s lustful abuse, Miriam Hopkins balances playful sensuality with tightly-wound terror. She immediately shrinks from Hyde as if from a wild animal, aware of the danger because it is an intensification of the peril in her daily life. It is heartrending to witness her horror of him. While this is an over-the-top performance, it captures pure fear; Hopkins was as deserving of an Oscar as her costar. 

This adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains one of the best horror films ever made. Its terror is timelessly potent.  

Special features on the disc include a commentary by Dr. Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, a second commentary by Greg Monk, the cartoon Hyde and Hare, and a Theatre Guild on the Air radio broadcast of the story. 

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

Sep 28, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

I meandered a lot in my podcast listening this month. There was my mini deep dive in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a dip into an old episode of a regrettably dormant show, and a conversation about a new film that documents the cinematic past. All episode title link to the show: 

Lions, Towers, and Shields 
September 22, 2022 

This is a great discussion about William Wyler’s World War II-era classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), particularly because it goes into how this is still one of the best, if not the best movies about veteran’s experiencing post-conflict PTSD. One of the strengths of the panel host Shelly Brisbin assembles for each show is that she always has guests with a wide array of expertise in classic film, from expert to newbie and it makes for a more well-rounded conversation.

Writers on Film 
June 30, 2022 

I craved more conversation about The Best Years of Our Lives after listening to the previous podcast and found this episode with author Alison Macor a satisfying follow-up. She has written a production history of the film and writing the book has given her a deep perspective on the making of the film and the elements that make it more relevant today than other war-related films of the time.

The Brattle Film Podcast 
September 6, 2022 

Like the hosts in this episode, I have my issues with the way Mark Cousins presented his extensive documentary series The Story of Film (I was also relieved when he chose not to narrate his documentary about women in film), but nevertheless I’m excited that he has completed an update to the series. As a classic film fan, it’s satisfying to see where cinema has gone because I enjoy examining the roots of that in the movies of the past.

March 22, 2021 

This was a fascinating history of Howard Hughes which touched on his accomplishments, including in Hollywood, bravery, and the way mental illness made his life exceedingly traumatic.

Sep 14, 2022

On Blu-ray: Flicker Alley Release The Silent Enemy (1930) Reveals a Long Lost Gem


The Silent Enemy (1930) is both a cultural curiosity and a deeply entertaining film. Made on location in the Canadian Northwest by director H.P. Carver, and starring a troop of naturally gifted indigenous actors, it gives a glimpse of how fascinating a truly diverse movie industry could have been throughout the years. 

I recently enjoyed the film on its debut Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley. The liner notes for the disc, excerpted from film historian Kevin Brownlow’s The War, The West and The Wilderness are essential to understanding this film that evokes the documentary feel of Nanook of the North (1922). The historian was instrumental in the revival and restoration of the film after producer W. Douglas Burden brought it to his attention, essentially saving it from obscurity. 

While Paramount had granted the contract for the film and studio personnel like Jesse Lasky felt it was well made, it was also a silent when talkies were taking over the industry and thrown into block booking packages instead of given much-needed special exhibition. Thus it never got the attention it deserved, which makes this release welcome and a bit of a miracle. 

It’s the story of the Ojibway tribe in the years before settlers arrived. For this group of hunters and gatherers, hunger is a constant threat. Various factions in the group battle for dominance as they are threatened by famine. There’s plenty of drama among these tribe members, but egos and desires ultimately take a backseat to the ever pressing need to ensure their survival. 

While the intertitles in silent films don’t usually stand out to me except for the odd entertaining line, I was impressed with the powerful and poetic prose here. Prefacing scenes with phrases about “dogs savage with hunger” and a wildcat that is “the killer of the forest, nine feet from tip to tip” gave the story an extra edge and sense of tension. 

I also loved the striking simplicity of the way the ceremonial scenes were filmed. The actors are situated in the center of the frame, which gives them an added sense of power and grounding in their most spiritual moments. The focus is on the people in the pageantry, while the edges of the frame fade into darkness. 

Having recently seen Prey (2022) I was fascinated by the commonalities between the two films. Both stories are entertaining and suspenseful in the way they feature indigenous actors demonstrating their survival skills. While they are dramatically different stories, they share a lot in spirit because of the charisma, drive and ability of their performers, not to mention their great chemistry. It made me think about the decades between the films, how many different kinds of stories could have been told of these people and how that could have dramatically altered our perspective of each other. 

For that reason The Silent Enemy can be forgiven for its magical native framing and the other ways it misses fully appreciating and understanding its subjects. Overall it succeeds, finding the humanity, interest, and excitement in telling the stories of the people who first lived in territories which challenged them, but in which they ultimately succeeded. 

There are two soundtrack accompaniments on the disc: I found both to be enjoyable, but the score was especially impactful, with a bold, timeless composed by Siegfried Friedrich feel that suited the story well. Other special features include an image gallery with pictures from promotional materials and the production and a fascinating audio interview with the film’s producer W. Douglas Burden, conducted by film historian Kevin Brownlow, in which he shares what an adventure it was making The Silent Enemy

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

Sep 7, 2022

On Blu-ray: Paul Newman Directs Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel (1968)


Rachel, Rachel (1968) was Paul Newman’s directorial debut and a gift to his wife (he also produced). In the years since her Oscar win for The Three Faces of Eve (1957), he had gone full speed ahead with his career, while she had devoted much of her time to raising their three daughters, working in some capacity, but too guilt-ridden about going on location as her husband did. As an offering and a career boost, the film was a boon for Woodward and Newman. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Based on the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence, with a script Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern, it is the story of small-town Connecticut schoolteacher Rachel (Woodward) who lives with her controlling, if loving mother. The action begins as Rachel realizes she’s hit the midpoint of her life feeling lonely and uninspired. With a combination of passivity and a tentative sense of adventure, she allows new influences into her life: religion, sex, and the possibility of starting anew. 

The results of Rachel’s willingness to accept change are realistically messy, but worthwhile. When a religious zealot loudly preaches about how we “languish in the deep and lifeless dungeons of ourselves,” she is disturbed, because she feels the sentiment profoundly. An affair with a mildly charismatic, but caddish former schoolmate (James Olson) also opens her eyes, though it is of benefit to her in an unexpected way. 

Rachel’s story unfolds in three worlds: her present, her childhood, and her imagination which pulses madly with daydreams and intrusive thoughts. These three viewpoints make her whole, because we are all made of who we were, who we are, and who we would like to be. Once she has torn away the boundaries of her life, she learns more about the latter and how to move forward. 

It’s a story that could have been glum, with a drab, pathetic protagonist, as is often the case. Often the problem in portraying this kind of woman is that her creators believe she needs to change, to become more appealing to the audience. Woodward, Newman, and Stern all play a role in making this single, virginal school teacher an intelligent, beguiling soul, who is simply stuck and needs to change her circumstances. She is given the grace to be messy while in essence keeping her dignity and personality intact. 

Special features on the disc include a silent real of promo footage for the film and a theatrical trailer. 

Many thank to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review.

Aug 31, 2022

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up

This was an especially satisfying month of podcast listening. I loved the conversations and the revelations in these episodes. Show title links to ep:

August 17, 2022 

This episode perfectly captures the bizarre, brutal, beautiful magic of Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter. I’ve read a full book about the making of this movie and still learned many great tidbits here. Also, co-host Amy has a voice that’s an ASMR dream.
Pop Culture Happy Hour 
July 25, 2022 

I was glad to hear this overview of the new Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman docuseries directed by Ethan Hawke before I watched. It got me in the right frame of mind. Basically, that Woodward is due much more credit for her career accomplishments and that this love story was more complicated than most classic film fans know.
Keep It 
July 27, 2022 

In addition to sharing her views on the new release Nope, film critic Angelica Jade Bastién also has a lot to say about the new Newman and Woodward documentary in addition to a wide-ranging array of views about classic movies. While her insight is always fascinating, a heads up to the more sensitive that her language is colorful and I realize that’s not for everyone. 

The Micheaux Mission 
March 1, 2022 

I love how hosts Len and Vince thoughtfully challenge each other. It’s why this is one of my favorite film podcasts. You rarely see that kind of elegant discourse anymore and it’s so satisfying. This was a good analysis of Losing Ground, notable for being the second feature film directed by an African-American woman, but also an entertaining flick. I also liked the opening conversation about which black films should be added to the Criterion Collection.