On Blu-ray: Ron O'Neal's Finest Moment in Super Fly (1972)

I tend to think of Blaxploitation as a label for flicks made to thrill, with action, sex, and violence. They’re a showcase for charismatic stars and hip music, with a few stabs at social issues. That said, Super Fly (1972), which has a reputation for being one of the best so-called Blaxploitation films, both fits the bill and strays from the formula. This unique, thoughtful drama has plenty to get the blood pumping, but there’s a lot more happening here than a little excitement. I recently had the chance the revisit the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Like his father, photographer Gordon Parks, director Gordon Parks, Jr. has a knack for cutting directly to the emotions of his subjects. This applies to the way he peers into the uneasy world of Priest (Ron O’Neal), a drug dealer who wants out of the business, and the people who populate his inner circle. Just as importantly, he captures the mood on the streets of Harlem, with observant location shooting, revealing a world where anxious, preoccupied women rush home with groceries and young men on the make strut down the sidewalk with a grace that belies their struggles.

There’s a palpable life force to the city scenes Parks films, like blood rushing through veins. He documents the cracks in the sidewalk and the garbage piled alongside them. Parking tickets flap from windshields. When he moves in on the placid details of Priest’s plush home, you feel the hope in the dealer’s attempt to create a quiet space. He’s born for a quiet, intellectual life, but in a racist society, he’s got to hustle to live to his standards.

Curtis Mayfield’s soulful and soul-searching soundtrack hews closely to Parks’ vision. His lyrics serve as a Greek chorus, commenting on the world of Priest, but also go inside, finding the vulnerability and doubt beneath the hip defiance that is his shield. In a nightclub scene, the singer perfectly embodies those extremes, appearing confident and cool, but also sensitive behind those John Lennon specs.

In addition to being his most popular film, this is the role that reflects Ron O’Neal’s place as an actor. He would eventually perform Shakespeare on Broadway, and here you feel the gravity and impeccable approach necessary in a performer of that caliber. He’s able to communicate his feelings with wounded subtlety, broadcasting a conflicted interior life. Just like Priest, O’Neal was qualified for better things than he received.

In a pivotal moment, Priest makes an angry stand against the establishment, relying on the street smarts he’s acquired in a deadly business to save himself. When he succeeds, there’s a moment where a flicker of doubt breaks through. In a system created to see him fail, he can’t fully trust that he’s managed to push back. That moment describes a lot more than the story of one ambitious dealer and it’s why Super Fly is such a remarkable achievement beyond its style and genre trappings.

I was concerned about what a Blu-ray would do to the rough-hewn feel of the cinematography, but the image stays faithful to the feel of the film, which would not look right with a glossy restoration.

The robust special features include One Last Deal: A Retrospective Documentary, which is full of brilliant expert commentary, film commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, USC Professor of Cinema, Behind the Hog, a short documentary about the body shop that made Priest’s custom car, a history of the film’s costumes: Behind the Threads, and a revealing interview with Ron O’Neal in The Making of Super Fly.

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

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 More Great Episodes

Since I last wrote about some of my favorite podcast episodes, I’ve found many more fascinating shows to follow. Here’s what’s been grabbing my attention lately. All podcast titles link to the episode discussed:

Maltin on Movies
Patricia Ward Kelly

September 8, 2018

Over the past few months, I’ve become a big fan of this podcast hosted by Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie Maltin. These two have a lovely, warm rapport, which brings out the best in their guests. While they tend to focus on long-format interviews with current filmmakers and performers, there’s a lot in their back catalog to please classic film fans. I was especially charmed by this episode featuring Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. As many classic film fans know, Ms. Kelly has made it her life’s work to keep her husband’s legacy alive. Here she talks about her history with the legendary dancer and the one-woman show about her experiences with him that she has been performing in various venues. Kelly has a keen eye for detail, which gives her a knack for digging up revealing anecdotes. There’s lots of gems about his life shared here.

Eva Marie Saint

May 9, 2018

You can never hear too much from actress Eva Marie Saint. Well into her nineties she remains sharp, amusing, and despite experiencing great loss, full of zest for life. On this episode she discusses some of the highlights of her career with host Alicia Malone. She shares several stories about working with Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan in On The Waterfront (1954) and reminisces about her first meeting with Alfred Hitchcock. Though Saint doesn’t delve too much into her personal life, there is a poignant moment when she discusses how she has been dealing with her grief over the death of long-time husband Jeffrey, to whom she had been married for 65 years.

Warner Archive
Only One Ruta Lee
July 6, 2018

To promote the Blu-ray release of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Ruta Lee, who played one of the titular brides, discussed life on the set of the production. She is charming, clever, and an engaging storyteller with many vivid memories of working on the film. I love the way she describes her Bride partner Matt Mattox’s “beautiful, tight buns.” Such a saucy lady!

The “It” Girl/Dementia Americana
May 18 & June 1, 2018

This is one of my favorite podcasts. I love it so much it’s the only one I’ve seen live, but it rarely touches on my interest in classic film. Here, in a two-parter, host Phoebe Judge tells the story of Evelyn Nesbit, a Gilded Age celebrity who found success in front of the still camera and no end of drama with the men in her life. This episode only briefly discusses the few movies this pioneering supermodel made, Nesbit is more famous for her connection to a notorious sex and murder scandal than her film career, but it is interesting the way it draws in the world of cinema and its relation to fame.

American Masters
Lena Horne
July 5, 2017

In an interview from 1996, originally recorded for American Masters: Lena Horne, in Her Own Voice, the singer and actress discusses her early years in Hollywood, dealing with racism in the industry, her marriage to Lennie Hayton, and people who felt her civil rights work was counterproductive to the cause. Much of the pleasure of this episode is getting to hear Horne speak in that warm drawl for a half hour.

NPR: Fresh Air
Remembering Actor Tab Hunter
July 13, 2018

When Tab Hunter died in July, NPR’s Fresh Air paid tribute by re-airing a 2005 interview the actor recorded with Terry Gross. He talks about his memoir, being in the closet in the 1950s, his feelings about stardom, and the relationship he had with actor Anthony Perkins. As with Horne, it’s such a pleasure just to hear Hunter’s gently gravelly voice as he reflects on the past.

Do you have a favorite podcast that would be of interest to classic film fans? Do you host a movie-themed podcast? Please share in the comments!

On Blu-ray: Bacall and Peck in Designing Woman (1957)

There’s a particular kind of mood that a film like Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (1957) fulfills. It doesn’t go deep, but sometimes it is the beautiful milieu you deeply desire. Everyone onscreen looks well groomed, even the people who are supposed to be slobs, the sets are gorgeous, the clothes a marvel of construction, every character has something funny to say, and no one ever seems to truly suffer. Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this bit of cinematic eye candy looks even better.

Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall star as a sportswriter and fashion designer respectively, who meet cute, then ugly, then cute again and quickly marry. They barely know each other, which makes adjusting to daily life together an adventure. Her friends are arty, his are gruff. Clearly these social circles are hilariously not going to mesh well. And then there’s Peck’s ex, a sexy, and intellectually substantial showgirl played by eternal film stealer Dolores Gray.

There’s also a subplot about a gangster out to get Peck, but for the most part Designing Woman addresses the problem of how these people who are profoundly attracted to each other are going to bear living with each other. It’s a serious subject approached with hardly a forehead crease of concern.

Peck and Bacall don’t set off fireworks together romantically, but they are a pleasing comedy team. Both are more famous for dramas, but did just fine drawing laughs if they had the right script. This is perhaps the most success they both had in the genre, though Bacall's haughtily hilarious performance in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is a contender.

Gray owns all of her scenes, firmly equating sex appeal and class. She was made for the colorful, Cinemascope fifties, with her magnetic, if not too showy glamour and penchant for elegantly dominating a room. She’s also got a seductively lovely singing voice which she gets to show off in the production numbers There'll Be Some Changes Made and Music Is Better than Words both of which she is performing for a television camera, an amusing set up in that age.

For a film that looks so good, it isn’t surprising that the idea for it came from costume designer Helen Rose, who also created the costumes for Designing Woman. I'm sure plenty of ideas like that came from staff behind the scenes who didn’t get credit. Here Rose not only got credit, but her involvement was used to promote the film. One of the special features on the Blu-ray is an awkward, but amusing "interview" with Rose, where she filmed responses to pre-written questions for the use of the media.

In addition to the Rose interview, the disc includes 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.

Quote: Jean Renoir's Support for Ingrid Bergman

Image Source

I shall wait until you are falling and then I shall be holding the net to catch you.

-Jean Renoir to Ingrid Bergman when she was enjoying great career success. True to his word, he gave her the lead in Elena and Her Men (1956) when she found herself in slump. The film was a success for both.


Book Review--Retro-Style Adventure in Stephen Jared's The Chameleon Thief of Cairo

The Chameleon Thief of Cairo
Stephen Jared
Solstice Publishing, 2018

Since his 2011 debut, Jack and the Jungle Lion, I’ve always looked forward to Stephen Jared’s next novel. His retro books are classic movies on the page, trading off between noir and adventure genres. Of the six titles he’s written, the most heartfelt are his Jack Hunter series, which started with that debut, continued with The Elephants of Shanghai (2013) and now reaches intriguing emotional depths in the third installment: The Chameleon Thief of Cairo.

Set in the forties, this series revolves around the adventures of movie star Jack Hunter, his wife Maxine “Max” Daniels and his pilot friend Clancy Halloway. The books have always been engrossing: full of action, romance and engaging characters. I remember being impressed by the flow of the first novel. It really popped.

While The Chameleon Thief of Cairo has the thrills of its predecessors, it also has a lot more emotional depth. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-style excitement of the first two novels has matured into something meatier. Time begins to catch up with Clancy and his conversations with Jack, and a new love he meets over the course of his adventures, paint a richer portrait of these characters.

This time around the period is post World War II. Jack and Clancy are lured to Cairo to rescue an old friend of the latter, but are greeted with a more complex and dangerous situation than they had anticipated. The horror of the war throws a shadow over all they do and see, and it is clear that some are still fighting and for the wrong side.

It is possible to connect with this story without having read the rest of the series, but knowing the history of the characters made it more meaningful for me. I like where Jared is going with Jack Hunter and his crew and look forward to more adventures.

Many thanks to Stephen Jared for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

I’ve always been a bit iffy about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), as I feel anyone should be about a film that takes an essentially light view of kidnapping innocent young women from their homes. Perhaps that is why so much time has passed since the last time I saw this musical which, subject matter aside, is one of MGM’s greatest artistic and box office successes. Though I am always going to have a sense of unease about this production, it is nevertheless one of the great dance films and it is that element that I enjoyed the most while revisiting the production on a new Blu-ray double-disc set from Warner Archive.

In a busy frontier town, sharp-witted settler woman Milly (Jane Powell) is briskly wooed by burly backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel). Unfortunately, he neglects to mention to his new bride that in addition to her husband, she will be cooking and cleaning for his six brothers. Milly understandably revolts, but she is also in love with Adam. She makes the best of her situation by tutoring the other brothers in proper courting behavior.

The boys get a chance to try their new skills at a barn raising, but the afternoon ends in fistfights with their romantic rivals. Shut out of the town society where their intended brides live, they resort to kidnapping the women they wish to marry. Their escape is made complete by a valley-blocking avalanche. Now Milly must keep the frightened women “pure” until they can escape home in the summer thaw.

Brides was based on the short story The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t, which was a parody of The Rape of the Sabine Women from Roman mythology. It’s a much rougher story than the film adaptation, with Milly not only suggesting the abductions, but also helping the men to abduct the women at rifle point. Of course mid-century moral conventions required that the film version of Milly have nothing to do with such a plot and show proper indignation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the plot of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is that in the midst of the fifties, a mainstream film featured a woman who prevailed over seven men in a war of wills. As much as the men in the film do to deceive, overpower and dominate the women they meet, it is Milly who ultimately controls what happens. She takes Adam to task over his trickery, changes the slovenly habits of a house full of men, and sets the terms for a long winter in which she must care for and protect six young women. Though she is content in playing a traditional caretaking role, every major decision made in her marriage and on her homestead is heavily influenced by her wishes.

As with many musicals though, the plot doesn’t get the bulk of attention, and rightfully so. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is most famous for its athletic and physically challenging dance choreography, performed by the seemingly fearless dancers Tommy Rall, Marc Platt and Matt Mattox, with added gymnastics and tumbling feats from Russ Tamblyn. These men are the core of an astonishing barn-raising scene, featuring dozens of male and female dancers, which is understandably one of the most famous dance sequences to be put on film.

In a relatively small space, the Pontipee brothers face off with an equal number of rival suitors from the town as they try to woo the most eligible young ladies in the settlement. This sizable group of dancers leaps and twirls through the barn worksite. Recalling her time as one of the brides, Julie Newmar remembered the intensity of the atmosphere on set, where the peril to the performers was ever present. Each leap onto a sawhorse, every cartwheel or fast-paced turn, even stepping between beams on the open foundation could lead to a life-changing, or even fatal, injury. That all this raw athleticism was translated into such a visually beautiful number makes it all the more remarkable.

All told, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers works because it appears effortlessly entertaining. The songs are hummable, the stars and their supporting players pleasing, and everything moves at a brisk, breezy pace. It would be legendary for the power of its dance sequences alone, but it really sings because it works on all those different levels. I will probably always feel queasy about the kidnapping, but there’s no denying the MGM magic at play here.

The two-disc Blu-ray includes two versions of the film (which have been made available before in DVD): one made in Cinemascope, the other in standard format, so that MGM could ensure its desired level of quality whatever technical equipment a theater had. I’ve heard of big fans of the film noticing different inflections, etc. between the two versions. I haven’t seen it enough to catch those nuances, though I did notice that the standard version was in dramatically better condition.

Special features on the disc include the 1997 documentary Sobbin' Women: The Making of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' which was hosted by Howard Keel and features interviews with several of the key cast members. There’s also a newsreel, a vintage short and a setting that gives viewers the opportunity to browse 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.

On Blu-ray: Rory Calhoun Rocks a Toga in The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

Before Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone made his name with spaghetti westerns, he began his career taking a stab at the sword and sandal genre with The Colossus of Rhodes. It is astonishing that the director’s first credited directing job is an epic-sized production like this one. While he did have some uncredited work covering directing duties on a couple of productions before winning this plum assignment it is an impressive work of genre filmmaking for a director still learning the ropes. The film has now been released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive.

The Colossus of Rhodes is the kind of movie with large crowd scenes, grand set pieces, orgies, betrayal, and slaves who are forced to taste suspicious goblets of wine before they stagger two steps and collapse in the middle of the dancing girls. I suspect I dug it partly because I was in the prime mood for it: drinking a beer, eating take-out and slightly logy from a warm summer day.

The film’s basis is the true story of a massive statue of the Greek sun god Helios (Apollo in the film) that was erected in the harbor of the Island of Rhodes. It follows Darios (Rory Calhoun) a military hero visiting his uncle in Rhodes. There he becomes involved in various plots to bring down Serse, the evil king.

Though packed full of all the earthquakes, battles and coliseum scenes the genre has to offer, Colossus can move a little slow, and ultimately, it goes on for too long. It looks good, but the action never really cooks. Still, it has well-crafted grandeur, beautiful people, hedonism, and the unmatchable Rory Calhoun in a shorty toga, with his twinkly eyes and fluffy forelock.

The deadly Colossus itself is a great prop, clever and horrific. It straddles the entrance to the harbor, and men inside open a trap door and pour flaming oil upon any vessel that passes between its spread legs. True to the cinematic spirit, the statue is shown to be about three times the height of the actual structure, which now only survives in historical renderings.

The Warner Archive disc includes a commentary by film historian Christopher Frayling. Image and sound are good, with the varied soundtrack by Francesco Angelo Lavagnino coming off especially well.

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