Quote: Brigitte Bardot on Humanity

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In a way, humanity remains like an animal. It functions as a herd. Man is fundamentally selfish, and most people do not react to a cause unless it directly affects them … I want the public to be indignant, to come out of its comfort zone.

-Brigitte Bardot

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Book Review--Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master, MGM Director of Garbo, Crawford and Gable

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

Unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, such as Ford, Wyler and Cukor, the name Clarence Brown can draw a blank face from even classic film fans. It’s only until you consider the stars the MGM director worked with: Valentino, Garbo, Crawford, and Gable, or the films he made: Flesh and the Devil (1926), National Velvet (1944), The Yearling (1946), and Intruder in the Dust (1949), that you realize he was a giant in his own, less celebrated way. In a new biography by Gwenda Young, the filmmaker finally gets his due.

Brown was a complicated man, both personally and professionally. A trained engineer, he was drawn to the movies for their technical aspects, and yet he also had the ability to draw emotionally rich performances from his stars. On the set he could be subtle in his direction, pulling stars aside to whisper directions, but he had a reputation for coldness and unrelenting perfectionism. As a friend and business associate he cultivated long-term relationships and could provide much-needed support to those in need, but his multiple marriages often ended because of distance and emotional abandonment.

As a director, Brown didn’t have a distinctive style, which is probably as much the reason he hasn’t been remembered as an auteur as his reputation for being a company man at the behest of Louis B. Meyer. While it is true the director knew how to play the game, it did not prevent him from finding artistically fulfilling work and maintaining control over his career path. He cut his cinematic teeth under the silent film director Maurice Tourneur and the visual skills he acquired alongside him would inform his own work well beyond the silent era. Director Jean Renoir saw this knack for visual poetry and was among the few who found him to be an underrated filmmaker.

Young explores the often deeply intertwined personal and professional aspects of Brown’s life with a steady eye, noting the many contradictions he embodied. Especially compelling is her account of the production of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a profound rebuke against racism which the director made to address the ghosts from his own southern past. While he showed social consciousness in pursuing the project, he insisted that a young black actor play like a “coon” in a graveyard scene, rolling his eyes in fear while the white actors remained calm.

In addition to the satisfying examination of Brown as a man, the book is also full of the reflected glory of his association with the most glittering of the MGM stars. He is famous for being Garbo’s frequent collaborator, but worked just as much with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He nurtured the youthful talents of Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Butch Jenkins and Claude Jarman Jr. and adeptly managed big personalities like Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy. As a result, there are lots of entertaining on-set stories here.

This is a solid, much-needed tribute and an enjoyable read.

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

On Blu-ray: Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940)

I’m always delighted to watch Errol Flynn in any kind of movie, but like many film fans, I find him most irresistible in his swashbucklers. There’s a lightness to him in these roles; partly because of his easy athleticism, but also because he never seems to be taking things too seriously. Maybe there was a bit of self-mockery at play there, but the effect is charming. It was fun to see him again in one of his best roles as English Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), which recently debuted on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The Sea Hawk is grand, big studio, golden era filmmaking. With majestic brass on the soundtrack, magnificent towering sets, and gorgeous costumes, it is a luxurious production. The film also benefits from some of the most charismatic players of the day: Claude Rains playing a Spaniard, Flora Robson as an appropriately regal, but lightly humorous Queen Elizabeth, and the eternally reliable Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Alan Hale as support. Flynn is at his most dashing, approaching his role with a pleasing mix of gravity and zing. While there are many who wish Flynn’s frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland had played his love interest here, and it is true those two would have had more sparks between them, I liked Brenda Marshall’s moodier vibe, not to mention that she’s more believable as the niece of a Spanish ambassador (Rains).

Flynn’s Captain Geoffrey is the leader of a band of privateers who sail the sea taking supposed reparations for England. They have the public disapproval and private support of the queen when the crew commandeers a ship carrying Rains and Marshall. He is enroute to the queen to attempt to distract her from her suspicions about King Philip of Spain, who is secretly planning to send an armada to England in his quest for world domination. Marshall instantly falls for Flynn, how could she not? And settles into a new life as a lady in waiting for the queen.

Queen Elizabeth accepts the Captain’s suggested plan for a secret mission to intercept a shipment of Spanish gold. When he and his men are captured and enslaved, he learns about the armada and escapes so that he can warn his queen. All the while, he must deal with the treachery of Rains and Daniell, who is a traitor working undercover for Spain.

While it doesn’t skimp on story, The Sea Hawk is a classic because of its magnificent action set pieces. It opens with a chaotic sea battle, keeps up the pace with a few other bursts of excitement and closes with a fast-paced swordfight between Daniell and Flynn that ends in near darkness as Errol slices the tops off candles. These moments, and the charisma of the players, for the most part justify the long running time, though I did find myself drifting at the midpoint of the film, until those final action sequences roared into action.

The restored disc image is of solid if not sparkling quality. A sepia sequence midway through the film seemed less sharp, but overall there are no significant issues with the look of the film.

Special features include the featurette The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action, which includes astonishing footage of the enormous and elaborately-designed ships constructed for the production. It was lovely to see interviewee Robert Osborne talk about the film as well. The disc includes the Warner Night at the Movies 1940 feature from the DVD release, introduced by Leonard Maltin, which replicates a night at the theater back in the day with a newsreel, live-action short Alice in Movieland (featuring a pre-stardom Joan Leslie), the cartoon Porky’s Poor Fish, and theatrical trailers.

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

Book Review--Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
Edited by Kelley Smoot
Rowman & Littlefield/Lyons Press

Given the fact that niece Letitia Fairbanks had a strong influence on its creation, the straightforward honesty of Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer is remarkable and refreshing. The 1953 biography of the pioneering star and producer delves into all facets of his personality, from the delightful to the disappointing. Now this classic biography, which was originally written by Ralph Hancock, with input from Fairbanks, is being reissued with new archival material and unseen photographs, under the editorial supervision of Letitia’s daughter Kelley Smoot, who has assumed the mantle of family historian from her mother.

There are troubling elements of The Fourth Musketeer, like long, impossibly detailed conversations between Doug and the people in his past, but for the most part this is a revealing and evergreen portrait of an actor and producer who set the standard for many things in his industry. It’s a deeply personal account, which taps into the man as much as his work. While Tracey Goessel’s epic biography of Fairbanks is the ultimate resource on the actor, this is a book that captures his soul.

Fairbanks was one of the first stars to make a splash in films, and alongside his second wife Mary Pickford became part of the first celebrity couple. He was also savvy to the financial benefits of owning a piece of his work, becoming one of the founding members of United Artists. As a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was influential in shaping the overall structure of film work as well.

Reaching that career status came easy to Fairbanks. He slid into Broadway roles with little effort and when he realized he was aging out of the best parts, he embraced the large paycheck and creative possibilities of filmmaking with enthusiasm. It was a great outlet for his boundless energy and restlessness, though even bounding through a series of physically ambitious roles was ultimately not enough to satisfy him.

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Fairbanks would travel as much as possible, always striving to find a way to occupy himself. That insatiable quest for satisfaction is the primary theme running through The Fourth Musketeer. As easy as material success and romance came to Doug, his struggle to reckon with himself was more daunting. The key to that may be found in his failure to forge a paternal bond with his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who eventually leaned into a close friendship instead with his father. The actor seems to have feared the way fatherhood made him face his own mortality and the fact that he wasn’t always going to be able to bound through life with the athletic vigor of his youth.

Hancock and Fairbanks are admirable in their thorough examination of Doug and his complexities. Facing his weaknesses, and exploring how they were inextricably intertwined with his unique gifts, in addition to sharing exciting on-set stories and tales of his life with Pickford, makes for a compelling read. This new edition lets the strength of the original book dominate, with the new materials providing additional support to an already sturdy narrative. It’s a great celebration of an eccentric, complicated man who remains as fascinating today as ever.

Many thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for providing a copy of the book for review.

Quote: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on Ernst Lubitsch

He never forgot that dialogue should complement, not replace, what is essentially a visual medium.

-Douglas Fairbanks Jr., about Ernst Lubitsch

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On DVD/Blu-ray--Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color

For the past eleven years, Flicker Alley has worked with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Fims to faithfully release several lovingly-crafted compilations of the works of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès. From its wide-ranging box set Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) to the robust release featuring a restoration of the hand-colored A Trip to the Moon (1902), the label has played a vital role in preserving the filmmaker’s legacy. Now in the new release Méliès: Fairytales in Color, Flicker Alley has once again partnered with Lobster and Blackhawk to bring Méliès to the masses.

Many of the thirteen short films included in Fairy Tales in Color were also a part of First Wizard set (with the significant exception of Robinson Crusoe [1903]), but here they are presented in restorations drawn from newly discovered elements and greatly improved digital technology. The result: image quality that is simply jaw dropping for a series of films over a century old. Details are sharper, hand-painted colors pop, and the clarity of the storytelling is all the more magical because of it. While the color was never meant to be completely realistic, in some instances it’s startling how true-to-life it can be.

While the original Flicker Alley Méliès set will always be the best bet for a deep dive into the filmmaker’s work, I find this collection the most compelling. The fairy tale theme is an appealing concept which ties in nicely with the magic of his style. With accessible stories and sharp clarity of image, this the ideal set for Méliès newbies and for introducing children to classic film.

Several of the films include narration, based on original scripts penned by Méliès, and read by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. These are useful, especially for younger viewers, as several of the films would be difficult to decipher without them. It’s also fun to get a taste of the charm and flair for performance Bromberg has brought to his own live shows at several film festivals, in which he similarly provides narration and shares assorted shorts; all that’s missing is the cheeky between films commentary.

The films in the set range in length from a minute to twenty minutes, with a fairly even mix of varying lengths. Among the longer films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) are highlights, while the brisk but fascinating The Pillar of Fire (1899) and The Infernal Cauldron (1903) are among the shorter gems. It’s a beautifully curated collection which covers a lot of ground within the confines of its theme.

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

On Blu-ray: Sci-fi Classic The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951) is deservedly regarded as a classic of the sci-fi genre. It’s got the requisite thrills and fantastic creature intrigue, while distinguishing itself with well-developed, interesting characters, a legendary soundtrack, and sharp production value given its relatively low budget. I recently watched the film in a gorgeous restoration on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in which it has been returned to its original theatrical length.

In a plot of slowly building tension, a team of researchers on assignment in the arctic discover a mysterious object which has crashed to earth and became suspended beneath a layer of ice. They soon realize it is alien creature inside a spaceship, and the being has somehow still clung to life. As they try to understand who has invaded their planet, and speculate whether there are more ships to come, the group fights off the attacks of this creature that lives on blood.

One of the best things about this movie is its effortless flow, which has much to do with the easy chemistry of the cast and the way their busy, overlapping conversations ring true-to-life. Sometimes the patter runs as fast as in a newsroom comedy. It has long been rumored that producer Howard Hawks directed more of the film than credited helmer Christian Nyby, and given the snappy rhythm I can see how that could be true. As the tension builds, the feeling of peril is intensified because you don’t want any harm to come to this vibrant, likeable crew. The camaraderie and skill of this team of soldiers, scientists, and a journalist are intensely appealing.

In this uniformly engaging cast, Kenneth Tobey is especially appealing as the captain of the mission; he projects reassuring ease as a hero who is inherently brave, but humble about it. Hawks created a female role on the originally all-male crew so that he could promote his new discovery Margaret Sheridan, who plays Tobey’s fiancé. There’s no mistaking why she appealed to him: she’s a dead ringer for his wife Slim. 

While the boost didn’t launch Sheridan into stardom, as a diligent, practical scientist she is a coolly intelligent asset and gently amusing in her banter with Tobey. Her inclusion is also remarkable for being a rare female role in that era in which she is an equal and has agency, though yes, she makes coffee for the guys; it’s still the 1950s. Both Tobey and Sheridan are especially intriguing because they’re not coy or silly as is often seen in roles like these. They’re just a pair of highly competent people who are entertaining because of the delight they take in their work and each other.

Robert Cornthwaite is also intriguing as a scientist who endangers the group because of his determination to learn more about the creature. As frustrating as it is to see him continuously create dangerous situations, it’s interesting how well the crew understands his desire for discovery. As a fellow scientist Sheridan in particular views him with compassion and patience. While the crew thwarts his plans in the interest of their own survival, they also protect him.

In a pre-Gunsmoke role, future T.V. western star James Arness plays the alien. It’s ironic that the only cast member who went on to great fame had in some respects the most thankless part. However, though he plays a roaring animate vegetable with no lines and little screen time, he’s the center of all the big scare moments and provides an exhilarating pay-off to all that slow-building tension.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack is a genre masterpiece, broadcasting uneasy doom with its blasting horns and slithery Theremin (the instrument of classic sci-fi flicks). It is deservedly one of the most celebrated aspects of the film. In the final scene in particular, it amps up the sense of dread magnificently.

Special features include a pair of trailers: one original the other to promote the restoration.

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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