Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: November Roundup

 


I Saw What You Did
Esteemed Dirtbags
November 9, 2020

I’ve missed TCM Programmer Millie De Chirico’s voice in podcasting ever since her hugely entertaining show Sordid Details with co-host April Rich ended. Now she is back, with co-host and cultural writer Danielle Henderson to talk about movies. Every week the hosts will each pick a movie to share and discuss. The first episode features The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Heavenly Creatures (1994) and I’m already a huge fan. Both De Chirico and Henderson are unpretentious, knowledgeable, and great at the sort of easygoing patter that makes a podcast a must-listen. 

 


Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Carmen Miranda read by Storm Large
October 20, 2020

 I continue to be impressed by the short, but substantial profiles in this podcast that is appropriate for children, but of interest for all ages. While I have long been a fan of Carmen Miranda, this episode made me realize how little I knew about her unique and turbulent life story.
 


Cinema Junkie
Black Films That Matter
July 3, 2020
 
I don’t know how I missed this fascinating episode of Beth Accomando’s film podcast from this summer, when protestors marching against police violence were the focus of media attention. Writer David F. Walker shares a well-curated list of protest films, including several lesser-known gems like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). I appreciated how Accomando gave Walker the space to go deep about the feelings the protests aroused in him. His comments gave the film recommendations and the more cinematic aspects of their conversations more meaning.
 


Nitrateville Radio
Scott Eyman on Cary Grant, Fright Favorites Author David J. Skal
October 18, 2020
 
After enjoying biographer Scott Eyman’s latest book, a definitive take on Cary Grant, I was eager to hear more of his thoughts about the actor. This was the interview I enjoyed the most, because there’s a bit of vinegar to it as Eyman freely shares his criticisms of various stars and films of classic Hollywood. I also enjoyed Skal’s views on classic horror in the second half of the episode.
 

Hollywood Party Podcast
Irene Mayer Selznick
July 3, 2020
 
After reading Scott Eyman’s Grant bio, I was curious to learn more about Irene Mayer Selznick, a child of Hollywood who had always intrigued me, and even more so after learning about her close, enduring friendship with the actor. Lauren Semar’s always-fascinating biography podcast fit the bill. This is a great overview of the life of a fascinating woman.
 


On Blu-ray: Glamorous Mayhem in The Opposite Sex (1956)


The first time I saw The Opposite Sex (1956), a musical remake of The Women (1939) I didn’t appreciate it. How could I when I compared it at every beat with one of the best films ever made? I had a much different experience when I watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release, because I saw it for its own bold, vibrant, nasty charms.

In this version of a story based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play, June Allyson plays a wronged housewife (married to the robotic Leslie Nielsen) and former singing star who loses her producer husband to a scheming showgirl (Joan Collins, sexy, but far from the magnificence of her Dynasty days). She learns about the insult via the machinations of her frenemy (Dolores Gray) and pulls herself out of misery with the help of her best friend (Ann Sheridan) and a wild social crowd including Ann Miller, Agnes Moorehead, and Joan Blondell.

The best moments are, unsurprisingly when the women are alone together, plotting, gossiping, drinking, and supporting each other through the mid-century challenges of being female. This is a stunning cast, full of big personalities that meld together miraculously. Though I hate the term “cat fight” and the way people snigger at women in physical fights, I have to admit that fisticuffs were central in my two favorite scenes: one where Allyson gets so steamed she slaps an earring off Collins and another where a kitchen at a Reno divorce ranch is obliterated in a massive, chaotic, glamorous and very entertaining battle among several cast members.

While the songs aren’t terribly memorable, and my own personal dislike of Allyson affected my perspective, the production numbers look great and hop along with bouncy energy. In a musical highlight, Dick Shawn makes a typically goofy and unhinged appearance singing the title tune in a sketch with Jim Backus as the perfect straight man. Gray lends her silky charm to a rendition of the same tune during the opening credits.

In essence, The Opposite Sex is an explosion of female charisma, glamorous gowns, gorgeous color, and dripping acid. It’s a good time.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and a menu with direct links to the musical numbers.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On Blu-ray: John Wayne and Robert Ryan Butt Heads in Flying Leathernecks (1951)


Flying Leathernecks (1951) is an unusual entry in World War II cinema. While it leans into the familiar camaraderie and hijinks of many war films from the era, it offers a few visceral glimpses at the violent realities of war. This is most likely due to the influence of director Nicholas Ray, who was stuck with an assignment that ran opposite to his beliefs. I recently viewed it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

John Wayne and Robert Ryan star as Major Dan Kirby and Captain Carl “Grif” Griffin respectively. Kirby has been enlisted to lead the Wildcats Marine squadron as they head into what would become the historic battle of Guadalcanal. While the unit members had assumed that Grif would be promoted to commander, they accept their new leader, as does Griffin, who is disappointed to not get the promotion, but takes the rejection in stride and apparently with little surprise.

While they respect each other on a certain level, the men butt heads. Griffin believes in the human touch, and focuses on building strong relationships with his pilots, while Kirby is determined to face his tough job with a hardline approach. That perspective is at odds with the tenderness of his home life, where he is gentle and adoring with his wife (Janis Carter) and physically affectionate with his young son (Gordon Gebert), if in a macho way and after gifting him with a Japanese sword. It is possible that there is a divide between what Kirby assumes he has to do and what he feels.

Grif seems to understand Kirby’s conflict on some level. He doesn’t like his methods, but he doesn’t entirely write him off. Ray wisely gives them plenty of space to talk it out in long scenes that revel in the charisma of both stars. Perhaps they were both too old for their roles, but in these moments I enjoyed their presence enough that I wasn’t concerned about such details.

The supporting cast is sturdy, if not exciting. A standout is Jay Flippen as crinkly-eyed line chief and undercover supply thief Clancy. He has a face for Westerns, which is mostly what he did throughout his career, and here that quality lends some needed character and warmth to the proceedings.

As was typical of mid-century war films, the battle scenes are framed for the most part as action set pieces, but you get a glimpse of the horror these men are enduring. When they are shot, they don’t just flail around; you see the blood and the way their eyes throb with pain.

Ray was anti-war and you can sense him sliding some of his viewpoint into a studio assignment. However, for the most part the film feels like a high-flying Howard Hughes production, with its extended air battles and patriotic certainty.

Fans of World War II films will enjoy it. Ray fans won’t see the director they love here. For the most part, it is the push and pull between Wayne and Ryan that gives this production spice.

The only special feature on the disc is a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
 

On Blu-ray: Doris Day Breaks Out in Romance on the High Seas (1948)


 In Romance on the High Seas (1948) Doris Day made one of the most impressive film debuts in Hollywood history. In that performance, she emerged as a fully-formed star, ready to top the box office in the decade to come. Now this light-hearted musical, with its charming supporting cast and ridiculously catchy tunes is available in all its perfect pastel glory on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.


Janis Paige and Don DeFore set the scene as Elvira and Michael Kent a wealthy New York couple suffering from mutual delusions of marital infidelity. Elvira is also frustrated because Michael constantly cancels anniversary trips for business. 

When Michael ditches Elvira yet again to work on a merger, she decides to announce she’s going on their spoiled Cuba trip alone, while sending underfunded nightclub singer Georgia Garrett (Day) as a decoy in her place so she can spy on Michael and his new secretary at home. The also suspicious Michael hires detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to follow “Elvira” on her trip. To complicate matters, Georgia and Peter meet on the ship to Cuba and quickly become smitten with each other.

While director Michael Curtiz is perhaps best known for drama and action hits like Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), he did helm several musicals, including working again with Carson and Day on the also charming My Dream is Yours (1949) the following year. However, Busby Berkeley was hired to direct the musical numbers, and while in this film he doesn’t oversee the kind of massive, leggy productions that brought him fame, his unusual framing of movement and faces is evident in performances like that of the delightful calypso tune The Tourist Trade, led by the engaging Broadway and Cotton Club star Avon Long.

Jack Carson also has his moment with Run, Run, Run, his amusingly Caucasian take on Calypso, but for the most part the music belongs to Day. She mostly sings in casual settings: a bar, a restaurant, a windy ship deck. The tactic surely saved money, but it’s also clear that Day could provide ample spectacle by herself. 

The soundtrack is full of winners: in addition to Long and Carson’s numbers, Day’s renditions of Put 'em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon (and Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea), It's You or No One, and the instant classic It’s Magic are rhythmic perfection. One of the most fascinating aspects of the songs is that the latter two are reprised to reflect Day’s character development.

Day transforms into the unique star audiences would come to love over the course of the film. In her early scenes she is as scrappy as an early Barbara Stanwyck character and similarly a bit of a con artist, but only because her survival demands it. The daisies and sunshine aspect of her persona is always there; she is an instant star and entirely lovable as this character, but from that she evolves into someone more intriguing right before your eyes.

It happens during a mid-film reprisal of It’s You or No One. In her previous rendition of the tune she’s having fun with a fresh-faced combo, showing cheerfulness at odds with the mournful lyrics. When she returns to the tune she has lived the lyrics. With upswept hair on a windy cruise ship deck, she croons with that throb in her voice and ability to embody the emotion in a lyric that would distinguish her as a vocalist. In this moment she escapes being a type and becomes unique, the kind of person who could be a major star.

S.Z. Sakall and Oscar Levant round out the cast with their reliably assuring shtick. There’s also a heightened level of fussiness as both Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn make appearances.

While it may not have the glitz and spectacle of the other musical extravaganzas of the time, Romance on the High Seas is just as satisfying as those films and is in some ways more charming in its simplicity.

The Warner Archive disc includes the vintage musical short Let’s Sing a Song from the Movies and the cartoon Hare Splitter. It’s also got a handy menu that lets you skip directly to the songs in the film.


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Round-up

 I didn't have as much time as usual to listen to podcasts this month, but the shows I did catch were extra delightful. All of these episodes are packed full of love for the movies, from great memories, to interesting film recommendations. Episode titles link to the shows:



Warner Archive Podcast
October 23, 2014

With the recent passing of the marvelous Rhonda Fleming, I wanted to re-up this fantastic interview the actress did in 2014 with George Feldenstein of Warner Archive. She packs a lot of memories into this twenty minute talk. Fleming is the rare star who was found by Hollywood, rather than reaching out for stardom herself. While she didn't like the superficial nature of the Technicolor Queen label she carried, she nevertheless had a varied, interesting career and came out of it a lot happier than many stars. This is a must-listen.


Ticklish Business

In this high-energy conversation with host Kristen Lopez, Carroll Baker (Giant, Baby Doll) reflects on her years as a Hollywood star with delightful affection and enthusiasm. In her retirement she’s been keeping busy writing everything from her memoirs to murder mysteries. It was fun to listen to her reminisce and great to see that she’s clearly thriving in her later years.
 

Pure Cinema Podcast
Horror & Thriller TV Movies
October 2, 2020
 
Half the fun of the Pure Cinema Podcast is reveling in the joy and sense of discovery hosts Elric Kane and Brian Sauer find in exploring movies. In this episode they are especially giddy as the pair dives into an area less familiar to both: classic TV movies. I love these films because they are often a great place to catch classic film stars in their later years. Despite having watched many movies of the week, there were several titles here that were as new to me as they were the hosts. As always, this is a show to listen to with paper and pen handy.
 

Cinema 60
Deadpan International Bond Satires in the 60s
September 22, 2020

In this episode Hosts Jenna Ipcar and Bart D’Alauro take an international approach to exploring the spy flicks inspired by James Bond in the 1960s. They cast a wide net, covering films from countries as diverse as Denmark, Japan, the UK, and France. It’s an interesting mix of the familiar and the rare.


On Blu-ray: In a Smashing Performance Spanky McFarland Steals Kentucky Kernels (1934) from Wheeler and Whoolsey


All the films I previously watched starring the Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey comedy duo were from earlier in the pre-code era and as I remember heavily reliant on scantily-clad chorus girls. The 1934 production Kentucky Kernels trades in shapely legs for the cute factor, a role perfectly filled by George “Spanky” McFarland who was at the time in the midst of his successful run as a member of Our Gang. On a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed watching this little stinker wreak havoc for Wheeler, Woolsey, and anyone else in his path.

Kentucky Kernels falls near the end of the lengthy run Wheeler and Woolsey had as a comedy screen team. While this duo's humor has only slightly reached across time to me, they had a knack for physical comedy, and this production demonstrates how polished they had become in that regard.

The story is set in the South. This time the boys are unemployed vaudevillians who find themselves custodians of Spanky, who seems to have inherited an estate in Kentucky. As the pair attempts to claim the property, they find themselves in the middle of a family feud.

Mary Carlisle is sweet as the love interest, Margaret Dumont is allowed a bit more dignity than in her Marx Bros. films, and Noah Beery does his best Foghorn Leghorn bluster as the feuding Colonel Wakefield, but it is McFarland as a diligent little chaos agent who steals the film from Wheeler and Woolsey. He plays a boy with a penchant for breaking glass. He does it constantly: windows, light bulbs, bottles; whatever comes across his path.

This kid plays the kind of troublemaker that you would typically like to imagine at the bottom of a well, but Spanky is so darn charming and more nonchalant than devious about his mischief. He’s actually the most dangerous kind of troublemaker, with no conscience and no control, but it’s liberating to see him indulge in his appetite for destruction without a care in the world.   

Kentucky Kernels moves along at an efficient clip, buoyed most by McFarland, but also boosted by a musical interlude featuring the charming earworm One Little Kiss, and a magnificently goofy and inventive final slapstick sequence.

For more sensitive viewers, a heads up that Willie Best (billed as Sleep ‘n Eat) is featured as one of those dispiritingly lazy characters Black actors were so often required to play in the era. The disc includes three cartoons from 1934, the Popeye shorts The Dance Contest and Sock-a-Bye Baby, and Buddy's Circus which also heavily features racial stereotypes common for the time (Warners does include a title card with information about the inclusion of this 'toon).

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

 


Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Scott Eyman 
Simon & Schuster, 2020

Cary Grant was a complicated man. That much has been common knowledge among his fans for years. He would pinch a penny until it squealed, but was generous with his time and possessions. He’d be as respectful to a studio secretary as a studio boss, but when it came to romance, he wanted a woman who would cater to his needs and even live her own life in accordance with his preferences. He could give you an ulcer or save your life.

All these aspects of the actor have never really been woven into a compelling portrait though. I’ve read a few Grant biographies over the years and I’ve never felt that any of them mined the depths of the man effectively. They always seemed to view him as a bit alien, unknowable. 

Scott Eyman's  new book about the actor, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is the first telling of Grant’s life in which I’ve felt he was given the grace of his humanity. It is clear that the man who started life as Archie Leach was a conflicted, but essentially self-possessed person who could offer profound generosity, but felt the insecurity of early poverty.

Eyman circles back to several topics throughout the book: Grant’s uneasy relationship with his mother, his also difficult marriages, and the ever-hanging speculation about his sexuality. While his issues with the women in his life played a key role in his insecurity about himself, his sexuality seems to have been of less consequence to him than the rest of the world. 

Eyman returns to the topic several times, to the point of it becoming tiresome, but I understood that detailed exploration to be of great interest to many potential readers. In essence, it seems that Grant did have some bisexual tendencies, including with his one-time roommate Randolph Scott, but that he viewed those escapades casually, as if he was horsing around in the locker room.

I appreciated that Eyman’s analysis of Grant’s career acknowledged the actor’s hesitancy to take risks and expand his craft. He certainly had the ability to excel in roles more adventurous than the comedies, romances, and thrillers he favored. 

The work he did, especially in comedy, required great skill, and he made it look a lot easier than it was, but he could have gone deeper if he’d had the nerve to divert from his image and take a risk. It’s fascinating to imagine what he could have done with something like either of the male lead parts in The Third Man had he taken the offer.

While Grant turned down several roles that could have challenged him to grow, he was nevertheless brilliant when it came to managing his career. He mostly free-lanced, striking multi-picture deals when it seemed advantageous. When Grant retired from acting, he easily slid into business, finding that being an active member of several boards required some of the same skills he’d used in his career.

In the end, Grant found himself adored, wealthy, married to a woman who catered to his needs, and well-loved by the daughter he had after leaving acting behind. He never entirely figured himself out, but who does? He worked his way to a sort of peace and he was generous in helping the younger people in his life to learn from his mistakes.

I finally felt like I understood the essence of Grant after reading Eyman’s book. The richness of the narrative, which was smoothly written and filled with enlightening first-person accounts, and the thorough research made me feel that every possible crevice of his life had been examined. We are as close to knowing this man as we will get and I admire him more than I ever have.


Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.



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