Apr 21, 2021

On Blu-ray: Teen Angst on the Airwaves in Pump Up the Volume (1990)


 

Pump up the Volume (1990) is decades newer than most of the films I review here. I do consider it deserving of modern classic status though. I wanted to write about it, because when I first saw it in the theater I expected it to make a bigger splash and influence more films like it. As it is, it has a solid cult following. Recently, I enjoyed revisiting it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

My 80s/90s crush Christian Slater stars as the shy, lonely Mark, a high school student uprooted from the East coast to the West for his father’s career as an educational administrator. Unable to connect with anyone at school, he finds a way to speak out via his raunchy and high-spirited pirate radio show. The students at his school discover his late-night ramblings and embrace him because he speaks to their emotional malaise, members of what he calls an “exhausted decade.” 

Having lived through this time as a teen, I did and still do relate to the blank feeling Pump up the Volume speaks to. It was a confused era for the young. Less politically aware than their parents and turned off by the consumerism of the eighties, these were the kids who listened to the rough and raw bands soon to be called grunge and learned about political injustice via the beats of Public Enemy, N.W.A., Iced T, and the like. 

Pump up the Volume nails the awkwardness of being a teenager. How your words never seem to come out right or not at all. How you have a lot to offer, but no idea how to share it. How you rebel because you want control, though you don't fully know what you'd do with the power. 

This was the first film Allen Moyle had directed since Times Square (1980), another movie that understood the awkwardness of not fitting in and the messy feeling of relationships when you are young. He would go on to direct what would become another cult youth favorite, Empire Records (1995). It’s a shame Moyle hasn’t made more films about the young, because he seems to have a good memory for how the confusion and disorder of growing up feels. 

When Pump up the Volume came out, I assumed it would inspire more films like it. It was raw, energetic, and empathetic in a way that directors like John Hughes could never tap. This was what teens were really like. Instead, there was a bit of a void in the teen market until lighter fare like She’s All That (1999) set a new template. 

Now, for better or worse, anyone can have a voice on social media. You don’t need Mark’s short wave radio set to reach the masses. As chaotic as that can be, I think it’s for the best. So many of our problems as a society are due to those without power having a voice and that has demonstrably proven to be one of the great perks of having free, potentially far-reaching platforms online. 

Of course, something that powerful is going to have significant drawbacks; the combination of freedom and the means to speak always do, but sometimes I think we forget how much it connects us. Instead of the one-way or occasionally two-way connections of Mark and his radio station, the exchange is faster, wider and in many ways more effective. 

Pump up the Volume is most powerful when it speaks to the need of having a voice and even more importantly, being heard. 


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

Apr 14, 2021

Book Review--Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism


 

Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism 
Terri Simone Francis 
Indiana University Press, 2021 

Josephine Baker was an anomaly in the early days of black representation in cinema. She never played a maid or a cook and she was always the star of her films. As the energetic star of films including Zouzou (1934), Siren of the Tropics (1927), and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), she offered a new perspective on Black actresses on the screen. That said, the way she was presented to her public had its complications. In a new book, Terri Simone Francis explores the legendary performer’s image and accomplishments on the screen. 

Before I picked up this book, I’d never watched a Josephine Baker film. I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed clips of her singing and dancing, I’ve read two biographies about her, I’ve even read a whole book about her Rainbow Tribe of adoptees from around the world. The only conclusion I can come to is that I assumed that a woman who walked down the streets of Paris with a Cheetah on a leash, had men fighting duals over her, and lived in glamour and chaos for decades could never be half as amusing in a film as she was in real life. 

I’m glad this book inspired me to fill in that hole in my cinematic education. I’m also happy to have been wrong, because while Baker didn’t think much of her films, she had presence and the camera loved her. This academic, but accessible deep dive into her film career and the impact of her image in the movies is thorough in considering what influenced her, how she reflected the current culture, and how she continues to be an influence today. 

Francis explores how Baker’s performance style was inspired by African dance and blues singers like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Clara Smith (with whom she performed in the US). She put her own comic lens on these varied influences and presented her take with a boldness that would later show in the style of top stars like Diana Ross and BeyoncĂ©. That vibrancy would translate well to the screen, where her mere presence was invigorating in addition to her energetic, unique dance style and solid comic chops. 

Baker’s films were intricate in the way they approached her role in society. While she was the glamorous and charismatic focus of attention, there was always a flavor of exoticism in the way she was portrayed. French colonialism also had a steady pull, keeping her centered, but not quite free. Wealthy white men might have found her alluring, but she was never the romantic focus. Francis thoughtfully details that uneasy balance of stardom and restriction that affected her film work, placing Baker in the complicated history of minstrelsy, Hottentot Venus, and other modes of Black performance and spectacle. 

This is an impressively thorough examination of a relatively short period of Baker’s career that nevertheless had a significant impact on her image and legacy. 


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

Apr 7, 2021

On Blu-ray: Ronald Colman in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1935)


The 1935 MGM production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth screen adaptation of the novel and the first to be made with sound. It followed the similarly grand David Copperfield, which had been released earlier in the year. While the film explores the drama of the French Revolution on a large scale, it is almost intimate in the way it explores love and sacrifice. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

The casting of the film for the most part is perfect because it is utterly unsurprising. Basil Rathbone settles cozily into his role as an icy, cruel Marquis, Edna Mae Oliver ties her bonnet and plays the perfect protective servant, and Elizabeth Allen performs with the reserve of someone who knows she is meant to be decorative. 

Ronald Colman on the other hand is a revelation. Throughout most of his career, he tended to play dashing, romantic, and plainly heroic characters. It’s fascinating to see him play a more downbeat and morally complex character. Much like Cary Grant, he could skate by on his charm and handsome face, but he had more to offer as an actor. This was a role he had long wanted and studied for and his total commitment shows in the performance. 

A Tale of Two Cities is a busy film. You get the feeling of a bag being quickly packed, stuffed full of important things that can’t be missed though there really isn’t enough room for everything. It’s a familiar issue for classic adaptations and especially the character-filled stories of Dickens. 

Still, it is an effective production and grand in a way only MGM could achieve at the time. While the crowds and clatter can be invigorating, the best moments focus on Colman and his personal response to public chaos. When in the midst of coldly efficient violence and cruelty he calmly meets his fate, it is immensely touching. In fact, it’s one of the great moments of classic cinema. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoons Hey, Hey Fever and Honeyland, audio of a radio adaptation of the story also starring Colman, and the amusing stereoscopic demonstration short Audioscopicks, which was nominated for an Oscar. 

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

Mar 31, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: March Roundup

For the first time in a long while, I think every podcast in my monthly round-up is new to this site. I love finding new shows, so if you've got a podcast, or one you enjoy that I haven't covered, please let me know in the comments!

Rarified Heir 
March 9, 2021 

This is a fascinating chat with Chris Lemmon, son of Jack Lemmon. He shares lots of charming memories about his dad and the more friendly Hollywood he grew up in. I especially loved hearing his stories about the real life characters in their family orbit, including Walter Mattheau and Christopher Walken.


Forgotten Film Cast 
January 15, 2021 

While I’ve known about the animated UPA production Gay Purr-ee (1962) for years, I’ve never seen it, so I was a bit alarmed to learn from this podcast that the plot involves trafficking of a cat bride. Of course it’s played for laughs, which is even weirder. And yet, I’m curious to see it after this conversation.

 


Beyond the Big Screen 

While I knew that John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn didn’t scream authenticity, this episode still stunned me, because it seems Hollywood got almost nothing right about Mongol history. The truth is as fascinating as the mishaps are amusing. 



The History of Film 
January 20, 2021 

I have long wanted to learn more about the French silent film comedian Max Linder. This was a good introduction to the actor.

Mar 26, 2021

On Blu-ray, Musical Delights for Troubled Times: My Dream Is Yours (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and Show Boat

With all the tension and troubles in the world right now, I nearly cheered at the opportunity to review this trio of musicals recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. Great music, gorgeous stars, and beautiful settings; there’s nothing like a well-made classic musical.


My Dream Is Yours (1949)
 

Doris Day followed her remarkably assured debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948) with another impeccable performance in My Dream Is Yours (1949). It’s amazing to me that this perfectly paced and charmingly acted film isn’t better known. The story of a single mother hustling with her determined manager to become a singing star is a perfect showcase for Day's daisy-fresh persona.

Day is paired again with Jack Carson. Next to Rock Hudson, I’ve always thought Carson was her best screen partner. They both have an energized, but effortless appeal, like neither of them has to work too hard to entertain. 

In addition to an amusing batch of catchy songs, including the cheerful Cutting Capers and the swoon worthy title tune, the film is full of visual delights, such as a bizarre dream sequence featuring Bugs Bunny, the elegant presence of an all-female radio orchestra, and lots of colorful costumes and sets. 

The supporting cast is a sharp crew of Warner Bros players including Eve Arden, Adolphe Menjou, and S.Z. Sakall, who is always a welcome sight, though it’s a shame none of his characters ever seemed to have an intellect above that of a preschooler. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Ham in a Role, the drama short The Grass Is Always Greener, and the comedy short So you Want to Be an Actor.


On Moonlight Bay (1951)
 

It’s funny to see Doris Day transition from the sunny, but savvy career girl in My Dream Is Yours to her role as an innocent teenager in On Moonlight Bay, but it’s impressive too because she pulls it off. 

I love the corny good cheer of this turn-of-the-century comedy (I hope the equally amusing sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon [1953] makes it to Blu-ray). It’s a great balm for tense times. 

Day plays tomboy Judy, who abruptly decides to switch gears and put on a dress when she meets the handsome Bill (Gordon McRae). Until World War I rolls around, nothing more traumatic than a broken leg happens in their pleasant, small town world. 

The film is a series of gentle vignettes, featuring a cast of appealing and under-used character actors including Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as her parents, the refreshingly unmannered Billy Gray as her brother, and Jack Smith as Judy’s handsome, but hapless and irritating suitor. The never under-used, ubiquitous Mary Wickes is also a delight as the family maid. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Hound for Trouble, and the musical short Let’s Sing a Song About the Moonlight.


Show Boat (1951)
 

While there is much to love about the pink satin and ribbons MGM-style grandeur of George Sidney’s adaptation of this legendary stage musical, I’ve never fallen completely under its spell. 

For one, James Whale’s artistically lensed 1936 version captured the grittiness of the story with greater flair and having legendary personalities like Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on hand certainly helped. I’m also not a fan of the operatic singing style of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, which somehow doesn’t work as well for me on the screen as it would in a stage production. Viewers who like that style will find this film heavenly; I tend to resent it a little more because it meant that Ava Gardner’s lovely singing voice with that perfect Southern drawl had to be dubbed so that she’d fit the bill. 

As in Whale’s version, the supporting cast is delightful, featuring Joe E. Brown in an unusually reserved performance, Agnes Moorehead, William Warfield doing a wonderfully rumbly version of Ol' Man River, and Marge and Gower Champion as the show boat’s comedic team. Ava Gardner is the stand-out though: she’s passionate, raw, and unafraid to appear stripped of her glamour (she remains stunningly beautiful even when she's supposed to be ragged). 

It’s a fine spectacle, but I kept thinking back to Robeson, Morgan, and the magical way Whale filmed the sparkling river water. 

Special features on the disc include commentary by George Sidney, the Show Boat sequence from the 1946 musical Till the Clouds Roll By, an audio clip of Ava Gardner singing Bill and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, a Lux Radio on Theater Broadcast, and a theatrical trailer.

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

Mar 24, 2021

Theater Streaming: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland Fight the Power in Vietnam-era Documentary F.T.A. (1972)

Over the past few years of intensifying chaos in our world, I’ve often thought about the interviews Donald Sutherland gave to promote The Hunger Games, the first film in a franchise for which he portrayed the insidious President Snow. It was 2014 and he hoped that the film’s message would inspire young people to become “more politically aware.” It wasn’t long that reality, rather than cinema, brought that shift. 

As can be seen in the newly-restored and long obscure documentary F.T.A. (1972) (meaning: Free the Army or occasionally another more profane 'F' word), Sutherland has long been in the fight himself, much like his costar Jane Fonda. The film documents how an anti-war musical, comedy and dramatic performance troop, a sort of antidote to the cheerfully oblivious USO shows, led by Sutherland and Fonda on a tour of the US and Pacific Rim bases, brought comfort to members of the military who opposed the Vietnam War. 

Until now, F.T.A. has been difficult to see. The film was taken out of release only a week after it was released. According to director Francine Parker, that was due to a call from the White House. 

The restoration includes a new introduction by Jane Fonda which helps to put the film in context. She explains that she was challenged by GIs to get involved in the anti-war movement and that she accepted because she saw a significant resistance to US involvement in Vietnam within the military.


It’s a remarkable film in the way it respects the goal of Fonda, Sutherland, and company to focus on the needs and voices of the military members who question the actions of their government and the local activists in the places where they are stationed. They often take a back seat to the voices around them, thought notably taking the heat whenever there is government resistance or a disruptive audience member. It was gratifying to see Okinawan folk artists singing their protest songs and the troop members taking the time to listen to the concerns of their military audience. 

Fonda is particularly adept at switching roles, from vigorous spokesperson to empathetic listener. She speaks with a confidence and authority that was and continues to be challenging for many to accept from a woman and that she’s kept her intensity fresh for so many decades is inspiring. Here you also get the rare chance to observe her taking in GI stories, asking questions, and carefully processing what she hears with compassion and intelligence. This is a wealthy star who could have lived in uncomplicated luxury and instead has risked her safety and reputation throughout her whole adult life to fight for a better world. 

While Sutherland is less prominent in the film, it is clear he was committed to playing a supportive role in the resistance and understood the power in showing up and providing a platform for the voices that needed it. He’s always quietly mesmerizing when he does have the spotlight, as when he recites a passage from Johnny Got His Gun, demonstrating a perfect intersection between his dedication to his craft and his desire for justice.



The troop is appealing in its diversity and enthusiasm (members included Holly Near, Paul Mooney, and Rita Martinson). Folk singer and civil rights activist Len Chandler is a stand-out both for his musical talent and invigorating revolutionary zeal. Chandler is a great example of the spirit of the troop, holding up lyrics for a nervous military performer, enthusiastically boosting sing-alongs, listening supportively to the concerns of young black men understandably resistant to invading another country when they are not supported at home, and reveling in the community feeling meant to make those who resist feel less frightened and alone. 

The film has an unusual effect today. It is very much of its time, with artists hollering folk tunes, shouting for the release of Angela Davis from prison, and flashing peace signs, but all of the issues the artists, military personnel, and locals discuss are as pressing today as they were then. In observing a sketch where a white doctor beholds a heavily pregnant black woman and questions her condition, it’s chilling to think how that kind of disbelief is still dangerously prevalent in the medical community and continues to endanger lives. 

While it's frustrating to realize how long people have been fighting for the same issues, it's encouraging to think of the tenacity of some of these life-long activists. If Jane Fonda is still going. If Donald Sutherland is still going. If Angela Davis is still going. Then we can keep it up too. F.T.A. reinforces the importance of compassion and community in that fight. 

F.T.A. is streaming virtually via Kino Marquee . 

Many thanks to Kino for providing access to the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Kino.

Mar 17, 2021

On Blu-ray: Real Life Marrieds Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in Room for One More (1952)


 

Based on the 1950 autobiography by Anna Perrott Rose, Room for One More (1952) is a charming and surprisingly edgy story about a family that fosters two troubled children. Starring the then-married Betsy Drake and Cary Grant, it’s an interesting mix of humor, drama, and ideas about parenting that are sometimes dated, but more often forward-thinking and bold. I recently enjoyed the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

It’s amusing that Drake and Grant were actually husband and wife at the time of filming, because while they have great chemistry onscreen together, they appear so different. With her sensible hair and modest beauty, Drake looks like a middle class housewife. On the other hand, the tanned, sexy Grant, with his sleekly pomaded hair looks like a movie star. Of course, it is most important that they are believable as parents and both connect well with their movie brood (which includes the always delightful little-old-man-child George “Foghorn” Winslow). 

Drake is the steady half of the pair. She knows what it takes to keep her household happy and healthy. While it is an enormous, risky thing to add two struggling children to a family that already has three, she handles difficult situations with serenity and she does so by giving the kids the power to make their own happiness and security. 

Grant has his own moments of parenting brilliance. His is the final decision in bringing teenaged orphan Jane (Iris Mann) into the fold for good and he has an amusing discussion about the birds and the bees with a clueless Jimmy-John (Clifford Tatum Jr.). However, his primary job is to be the family doofus and he fills that role brilliantly, with double takes, physical humor, and an instinct for how to draw the most hilarity out of his interactions with a cast of children he seems to enjoy. 

The Rose house is a chaotic tumble of adorable children and animals, but there are a couple of things that keep the film from falling into sloppy sentimentality. One, Jane and Jimmy-John are deeply affected by the trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives and while the solutions to their anguish are occasionally a little too pat, they’re based in practical thinking. The other, more amusing element is that this family film is filled with references to Poppy’s extreme horniness in a setting where fulfilling the needs of five children is a 24-hour job. 

It’s an unusual film, somehow both sweet and brutal, and always attuned to the fact that we are at our best when we look out for each other. 

Special features on the disc include the classic cartoons Operation Rabbit and Feed the Kitty, and a theatrical trailer. 


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