On DVD: 5 Pre-Codes from Warner Archive

I love it when Warner Archive releases a flood of pre-codes. It almost makes up for the end of the Forbidden Hollywood box set series--almost. The company has thankfully stayed true to its promise to continue to make films from this era available on DVD. I enjoyed this latest batch, which includes a pair of flicks starring Ronald Coleman, early Kay Francis and Loretta Young talkies, and a good mix of genres.

A Notorious Affair (1930) is an unusual melodrama in that it features Kay Francis, but stars Billie Dove in what would eventually be the standard Francis role. Dove is a young heiress who falls in love with an impoverished musician (Basil Rathbone) and leaves her wealthy enclave for a more humble life. Rathbone falls for his thrill seeking patron, the Countess Balakiereff (Francis), causing Dove heartbreak and falling into ill health himself.

After watching Francis suffer nobly through so many melodramas, it is fun to see her be bad. With her slicked back bob and dangerous smile, she is the type to cap a flirtation with an attractive specimen below her balcony by tossing down her keys. I would have loved to have seen her in more roles like these, because it looks like she’s having a blast.

It’s rough to watch the usually dashing and devilish Rathbone play a weak and whiny character, though he does possess some consumptive glamour. Dove seems to think she deserves him, though she has better prospects. Still, despite her faulty romantic radar, she suffers elegantly, with those big eyes and a delicate bird beak nose that points down just so.

The Ship From Shanghai (1930) begins with a jaunty Chinese ensemble playing Singin’ in the Rain in a Shanghai nightclub. It’s about the last light moment in this tense flick that all but creates the template for many a shipbound terror flick.

Wealthy Conrad Nagel and and Kay Johnson join a group from their set on 3-month yacht voyage across the Atlantic. There they are eventually held captive by the vengeful ship steward (Louis Wolheim) and crew, who despise the snooty passengers and their high-handed ways. Of course, the truth is the steward only longs to be a part of their world, a fact made clear when he puts the moves on Johnson.

The film takes a sharp dive from playful luxury, to sweaty, nasty horror. You spend the first part of the film observing the off-putting privileged passengers and the next repulsed by Wolheim and his men. It isn’t enthralling drama, but it serves its purpose as a solid entertainment and keeps a good pace through its 67 minute running time.

The Devil to Pay (1930), stars Ronald Coleman as an irresponsible playboy attempting to bounce back from his careless loss of another chunk of his father’s fortune. Cut off from the family coffers, he returns to his mistress, but soon abandons her for a young heiress. This airy set-up then begins to deflate, as the necessary romantic conflict is something more easy to resolve than the plot would have it.

The film features a teenage Loretta Young as the heiress and Myrna Loy as Coleman’s actress mistress in a rare early role where she doesn’t play an Oriental temptress. As Coleman’s love interests, the effect they have varies widely. While Loy is charming and more age-appropriate for her male lead, she hasn’t yet honed the edges of the sharply appealing persona that would be the cornerstone of her legend. On the other hand, Young seems to have arrived in the talkies with her image fully-formed, if a bit coltish.

Coleman is reliably elegant and mischievous in a role that John Gilbert could also have mastered with ease. It’s a fun romp, enjoyable because for most of the running time you get the simple enjoyment of watching these attractive people at play.

Condemned (1929) also headlines Ronald Coleman, this time as a prisoner on Devil’s Island. Upon his arrival on a tightly-packed ship, he and his fellow prisoners are told there is not escape, upon which he turns to wink at his friend (Louise Wolheim). The warden (Dudley Diggs) observes Coleman’s elegant manner and decides to put him to work for his wife (Ann Harding) in their home.

The pair hit it off right away, establishing a friendly rapport. They are two attractive people though, and the inevitable happens: Coleman buys Harding a monkey in the market, inflaming her passions and Diggs’ envy. The pair plan to escape together, with the help of  Wolheim (he's one of those bruisers with a big heart and a delightfully smooshed nose).

Coleman and Harding have a solid, if not sizzling, chemistry and the action moves along efficiently. While much of the story runs along familiar lines, there are a few good jolts away from predictability.

Of the films reviewed here, Condemned has the most notable wear and tear, with lots of hiss and popping on the soundtrack, though the image is for the most part clean and clear.

The best of the bunch is The Lost Squadron (1932), a post-World War I drama set in Hollywood. Upon release from the army, a quartet of American fliers (Richard Dix, Joel McCrea, Robert Armstrong, and Hugh Herbert) pledges allegiance to each other and their fallen countrymen, who they refer to as “the lost squadron.” Jobs are scarce, but alcoholic Armstrong finds success as a stuntman in the movies and eventually the other three find work alongside him.

Hollywood is no safe haven though, as Dix runs afoul of a sadistic director (Erich von Stroheim). The men find themselves faced with an enemy more deadly than any they ever faced in wartime. Mary Astor and Dorothy Jordan are the women in their lives, and while this is an emphatically male-driven film, these actresses have a powerful presence.

The Lost Squadron has an unusually vibrant soundscape for an early talkie, drawing much of its drama from eerily rushing wind, whistling, and the shifts between quietly eerie or contemplative scenes and more raucous, celebratory moments. It is this high level of craft, and the charisma of the varied cast which make this an unsung gem worthy of classic status.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival:The Beales Before the Maysles in That Summer (2017)

The documentary That Summer (2017), which I viewed last night at a SIFF screening at the Ark Lodge Cinema, has been called the “Prequel to Grey Gardens,” because it features footage of Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the mother and daughter captured before that famous 1975 Maysles brothers film, in 1972, years before production. In a project conceived by Lee Radziwill, cousin and niece to the Edies, and the photographer and collage artist Peter Beard, the women were to play a role in a documentary the pair planned to make about the effect development had on the environment in the Hamptons.

After capturing hours of footage at the Beales’ home, the project died for reasons unknown and the film was put into storage. Now that film has been edited into this free form documentary,in which Radziwill and Beard also provide insight about what they filmed and what it was like to spend time with the Edies.

It is a less expertly crafted film than Grey Gardens, but in a way more revealing and compassionate. While the Maysles concentrated on the Beales, here you are given a more detailed view of the decay of Grey Gardens and efforts to restore it somewhat. As Radziwill discusses plumbing and electrical wiring with contractors, Little Edie flits around the edges. You wonder if reality has punctured her bubble of fantasy when it appears a bit of humiliation flickers across her face. She explains that she has done the best she can to manage, that the garbage piled up because the trucks would not come to pick it up.

It is also more clear how much Big Edie controlled her daughter, and how, despite her love for her mother, Little Edie resented her imprisonment as her caretaker. This magnetic and attractive woman could likely have escaped in marriage in her early years, but clearly prefers full independence with a side of romance, which was not an option.

Though Little Edies’ dissatisfaction is clear, Beard chooses not to see it, revering the women as brilliant creators of their own world. While this is true of Little Edie as a matter of survival, it is clearly not the life she desires. From his perspective they are both happy. Though it is hard to be sure, it seems Radziwill also sees both the women as living how they choose. That they cannot see this woman’s depression and her unmet desires is frustrating.

That said, Radziwill is for the most part appears to be an entrancing and compassionate woman. She loves and respects her aunt and cousin, accepting them for who they are completely. Garbed in immaculate, expensive, and highly inappropriate ensembles for overseeing remodeling, she is polite and refined, but never stuffy. Her genuine warmth, and the funds she was able to secure from brother-in-law Aristotle Onassis, are the reason the Beales were able to stay in their home and made to feel they belonged, at least to a degree.

That Summer succeeds on the strength of the remarkable people it features. It isn’t well constructed; the clips of the Beales are presented unedited, essentially padded with the home movies and musings of Beard and Radziwill (he in brief vignettes that bookend the film and audio clips, she via the audio from a 2013 interview with Sofia Coppola) so that the film is barely feature length. As entrancing as the Edies can be, there are moments when their bickering becomes repetitive and tiresome, the footage would have benefited from an edit.

Grey Gardens fans will love this film though, flaws and all. It takes the viewer deeper into the Beales’ world and expands it to people only referenced in the Maysles documentary. Those not familiar with these eccentric East Hampton outcasts are likely to find it less compelling and even a bit confusing, if maybe somewhat dazzling because of cameo appearances of Radziwill’s and Beard’s social circle including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Bianca Jagger.

The film will show once more at SIFF on Tuesday, May 28 at 6:30 PM at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Godard, Mon Amour (2018)

My first day of the 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival was a varied and long, starting with a Secret Festival screening at the Egyptian Theater (that’s all I can say about that) and traveling through time, from feudal Japan to 1960s France.

I didn’t know anything about Sansho the Bailiff (1954) going into the film, except that director Kenji Mizoguchi is among the most celebrated Japanese filmmakers. I looked forward to seeing a restored version of the film for my first viewing and I was not disappointed. It sounded great and the mistily beautiful cinematography was presented to great effect.

Sansho is the story of a wealthy family who are separated when their governor father is exiled. They each fall into misfortune, primarily due to the heartless actions of the titular Sansho, whose trade is human bodies and the labor and pleasures they offer. Imprisoned and abused, all these unfortunate souls possess is the strength to stay true to their beliefs, though even that is not always assured.

Mizoguchi had a talent for finding the right people and setting them free on his productions. The wisdom of this approach is most evident in the achingly elegant, long shots of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the simultaneously enchanting and menacing music score composed by Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, and Tamekichi Mochizuki. These beautifully composed elements give the film a grace that does nothing to diminish the horrors on display, but does give the viewer the strength to absorb it all.

You do need strength to watch this film too, because it isn’t out to bring villains to justice, but rather to bring their evil deeds into the light. No resolution is offered, but in the end, everything lands in a place of love and forgiveness which can only come from the pursuit of integrity.

Godard Mon Amour (2017) is the lighter, vaguely slapstick story of film director Jean Luc-Godard in the period after he had made the revolutionary Maoist flick La Chinoise (1967) and married its young star, Anne Wiazemsky. 

The film passes through the decade plus they spend together. In this time Godard is faced with fans who want him to “be funny again” and engage him in conversations with no purpose or end. The director struggles to find acceptance for his new work, a film about revolution, while he tangles with what it means to be a revolutionary in the first place.

This exploration takes place in public, in the midst of protests and rooms of passionate youths who are always pained and outraged when Godard takes the mike and tries to work out what he means to say in real time. He realizes he is aging out of being an angry young man and that his youthful wife will not turn the clock back for him.

As Godard, Louis Garrel captures some of the edgy, itchy restlessness of the filmmaker in a mostly comic performance in which he is shown to be out of sync when it comes to interacting with the world, a fact emphasized with a running gag in which his glasses are constantly broken.

Rather than exude the pouty reproachful look of Wiazemsky, Stacy Martin has the appearance, and passive air of Chantal Goya in Godard’s 1966 film Masculine Feminine. Because of this, I was never able to accept that the woman on the screen was meant to be the same person as that budding revolutionary in La Chinoise. The real Wiazemsky appears more passionate and intelligent than this blank-faced, if strong-willed waif.

There are laughs and insight enough for Godard aficionados in Godard Mon Amour. Fans of director Michel Hazanavicius will likely not get the same charge here as with The Artist (2011) or the OSS:117 films, though at times there is similar humor at play. Overall, it gives you the feeling that you are passing time with these characters without ever understanding much about them but that they existed.

The film plays SIFF again at the Majestic Bay Theater on Tuesday, 5/22 at 9PM.

On Blu-ray: The Passionate Charge of Gun Crazy (1950)

I can never get enough of Gun Crazy (1949). It’s an addictive flick. The high-energy performances, its erotic charge, the rhythm of it, and director Joseph Lewis’ economical, effective style elevated this ‘B’ production to classic status. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut with a new 1080p HD master, from Warner Archive.

The story itself, based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor is basic crime noir: a pair of gun fanatics meet at a carnival, become fanatical about each other, and start robbing people. In the performance that made her a noir legend, Peggy Cummins is Annie Laurie Starr, a sideshow sharpshooter who will not hesitate to kill in order to get what she wants. Bart Tare (John Dall) wants her the moment he sees her, because he has always been obsessed with guns himself, though he is her opposite in that he is strongly averse to killing.

Nestled within this dark, violent story is one of the most passionate and true cinematic love affairs. So often romance is insincere in noir. It’s the tool of a femme or homme fatale, used but not felt. That is not the case here, where Annie and Bart are so ecstatically in love that they sometimes can’t think straight. Cummins is most adept at demonstrating this passion, though it should be noted that she appears to get the same erotic charge from robbing a bank.

The film is at its best when Lewis films his lovers as if they have been caught in a candid moment, interacting casually instead of acting. The best example of this is in the famous bank robbery sequence that was shot with one camera, set up in the backseat of the getaway car. As they drive towards the scene of the crime-to-be, Annie and Bart speak casually, like a couple heading to the grocery store. He lights her a cigarette and gives her directions; she comments on the heavy traffic and makes little explanations with the appearance of spontaneity. No romantic clinch could demonstrate their intimacy better than this scene.

Gun Crazy a great film, because it effortlessly combines its seemingly offhand scenes of intimacy with more conventional, and adeptly framed action scenes and passionate declarations.

The picture quality is great, retaining that bit of grain necessary to emulate the warmth of film. Special features on the disc include commentary by author/film-noir specialist Glenn Erickson and the 2006 documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, which is an excellent primer to those new to film noir and has some interesting tidbits for genre enthusiasts.

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

Book Review--Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics

Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

Even from the early days of film, cinema fanatics have existed in some form. Though not always known as film buffs, these mostly white, male, and socially awkward aficionados have been present and of an essentially consistent character over the decades. In a new book, prolific film writer Anthony Slide explores the world of these super fans for whom the movies are a life-consuming obsession.

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here. 

There are plenty of likable, or at least enjoyably eccentric characters featured in the book, but for the most part this is an unpleasant bunch. There’s the man who stalked Leonard Maltin, calling him in tears in New York from LA, (unsuccessfully) inviting himself on a trip with him and his wife Alice, and actually showing up at their apartment building and leaving a letter for the film critic in the lobby. Another film fanatic kidnapped a woman who lived in his building, stripped her naked, taped her to a chair and spray-painted her black. And among the most devoted collectors of film and memorabilia there are many who took advantage of those who wanted access to their rare collections, some even exhibiting psychopathic behavior.

In the midst of these lurid can’t-look-away tales of social dysfunction is a mostly unorganized, and in some cases unintended movement to save and promote cinematic history. The beauty of that passion and preservation in the midst of this fandom is like a rose in a trash heap. 

All told, it’s a fascinating story, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Slide doesn’t hesitate to share who he thinks is boring, sleazy or unattractive. He also has plenty of love for those he admires in this scene. Often, he feels both ways about the same subject. You need never wonder what he really thinks.

The digs, which come with a sort of affection for these people who have through their obsession done much for film history, give the book a personal feel. Slide is often a a part of the story, whether through his presence at various events he describes, the friendships he has had with film buffs and those connected with them, and his connection with the community as a writer and film expert. Whether or not he sees himself as a film buff is not made clear, but he knows the world of film fanatics intimately. The title of his book is apt; this is truly an "Outrageous History."

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

On DVD: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway (1938)

No actress gave the classic melodramatic weeper more depth than Kay Francis. In a genre crafted to manipulate emotions, she threw herself into the drama with such abandon that you can’t help forgiving her for working your tear ducts so relentlessly. Now on DVD from Warner Archive, Comet Over Broadway (1938) showcases the actress at her glamorous, self-sacrificing best.

Francis plays an ambitious newsstand worker who lives with her husband and baby daughter. She spends her days reading Variety and her nights performing in community theater, always dreaming of big stage success. When her husband accidentally kills a visiting famous actor who he suspects of putting the moves on Francis, he is put in prison for life.

Determined to get her man out of jail, the guilt-ridden Francis hits the road with her daughter, working her way up from carnival entertainer to Broadway star. Along the way she meets an aging actress on the verge of retirement. She notes the trouble Francis has raising a child on the road and insists that she take on the task of raising the young girl. Though reluctant to part with her, she agrees that it is the best for her daughter.

As the years pass, Francis falls in love, reunites with her daughter and fights for her husband. She is criticized for her ambition and her poor mothering, but is nevertheless determined to do things her own way. There are syrupy strings, eyes full of tears always on the brink of falling, and sacrifices galore.

Sybil Jason plays Francis’ daughter. It’s her second pairing with the actress, they were also mother and daughter in I Found Stella Parish (1935). As in that film, they have a pleasing chemistry, playing off each other well in some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes. Jason was groomed to be a sparkling Shirley Temple type, but she was more appealing as a dramatic star, always approaching her roles with sincerity and genuine warmth.

Bette Davis rejected the lead of Comet Over Broadway because she felt it was beneath her, which is fair, it was. However, in Francis’ hands this is a perfect melodrama. She knew exactly what she was doing in this kind of film and in her way she is just as good as Davis because, like her, she knew her lane and she kept in it.

Few genres are more derided that melodrama, but if it is done well, it essentially thrives in its own universe. It is a heightening of reality, grabbing directly for your emotions and if it is the ride you want to take, Comet Over Broadway is the perfect expression of the form.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On Blu-ray: Peter Boyle in Joe (1970)

As the title character of Joe (1970) Peter Boyle spits out a stream of bigoted patter that would have come as a shock a couple of years ago. Now it is a familiar fact of life, an unpleasant reminder that hatred may go into hiding, but never fully fades away. While some of the issues it explores are relevant to today, this gritty, bleak drama is very much of its time, a sort of farewell to a turbulent era. Now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, it is a surprisingly good-looking film despite its brutal feel.

Boyle plays an angry factory worker who hates black people, hippies, drugs, and youth culture. While drunkenly spouting off at a bar, he meets Bill (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who has killed his daughter’s drug-dealing, junkie boyfriend in a fit of rage. Delighted to meet a man who has fulfilled his dreams of murdering hippies, Joe attaches himself to the frightened executive, finding common ground in their hatred and clashing uncomfortably on just about every other level.

They drink together, have an awkward dinner party with their wives, and go on a scornful tour of hippie-dom where they don’t mind enjoying the attentions of a couple of free-love endorsing women. Adding to the discomfort is that Bill’s strung-out daughter (Susan Sarandon in her first film role) is the same age as these women and living the supposed hippy lifestyle he protests, while enjoying the benefits of the looser morals it inspires. There’s always a feeling of dread when these two are together, but it is Joe who generates the most fear. Bill has already killed, but you always have the feeling that Joe, encouraged by his friend’s perfect crime, could do a lot worse.

Much like the shocking rock documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), released the same year, Joe feels like a sort of death knell for the free-loving, experimental aspects of the sixties. All the hippies are burned out and the establishment remains intact, and ever more determined to maintain control.

It is a grimy, bummer of a story, and so it is astonishing how beautiful it can look. In a film made for a washed out palette, colors are instead often vibrant and sometimes dreamily beautiful. The landscape is bleak, but somehow something pleasing comes out of it.

Boyle plays a repulsive character, but he is true to himself and entirely lacking in pretension. It is likely that these qualities, in addition to his giving voice to views that were becoming unpopular, but remained strongly-held by many, contributed to the heroic image he had among fans of the film, a worship that horrified Boyle, who was repulsed by the man he played.

While for the most part compelling, in the end Joe’s message loses its subtlety. It circles back on previous conversations in a way that would almost be risible if it weren’t so gut-wrenchingly sad. What remains is the feeling that the party has ended, drugs aren’t fun anymore, and not much has changed.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.
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