Jan 19, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Bizarre, Beautiful Spectacle of The Pirate (1948)

You never hear anyone say that The Pirate (1948) is their favorite musical, or even their favorite MGM musical, but this unusual and boldly vibrant film is worthy of its own pedestal. I recently re-watched the Vincente Minnelli-directed production on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive and I found the gaudy delight that I had admired in past viewings has retained its appeal.

Of all the set-bound musicals, The Pirate is perhaps the most tightly-confined. It exists in a brightly-colored bubble consisting of a few settings, but for the most part centers on a bustling public square meant to represent a Caribbean town. 

It is there that Gene Kelly bursts onto the scene as Serafin a mischievous traveling actor setting up shop with his troop. Judy Garland is Manuela a local who is just about to marry the mayor of the city; yes it is a stretch to accept her as a Manuela.

Manuela is obsessed with the notorious Macoco, a pirate who represents adventure, virility, and escape. She is about to embark upon a life of comfort and ease as a wealthy man’s wife and the thought horrifies her. When she believes Serafin is Macoco, she falls hard, but the problem is that she sees what she wants to see when the truth is right in front of her.

This light plot serves as the structure for a giddy, lively scenario. The town square is full of extras in bizarre costumes. They are swathed in velvets and silks, stripes and polka dots, with outrageous splashes of color and clashing patterns. It’s busy and a lot to process visually, but it perfectly expresses the chaos of Manuela’s inner life which is now marching out for public view.

Kelly has played his share of rascals, but I’ve never seen him as randy as he is here. In his first number, he swirls around a cast of beautiful, haughty women, making it abundantly clear exactly what he wants and that he’s not the type to settle down. As he leans in to kiss a lovely lady, he sucks his lit cigarette into his mouth, letting it pop out when his task is completed. It is a precursor to the first time he sees Manuela, when in reaction to her beauty he lets a slow stream of smoke trail out of his mouth.

In line with the heated Mr. Kelly, Garland has never been so sultry. With her bright red lips and dreamy fits of fantasy, she is passion incarnate. Minnelli knew just how to show his star, and wife, to her best advantage. Here under his tender care she is transformed into a glowing temptress. It’s a pleasure simply to watch her raise a questioning eyebrow because she is so lovingly filmed.

The vibrant cast of characters gathered in the square does much to add to the mood of vibrancy and excitement. I found it exciting to see so many Black actors in dignified and lavish dress included in the mix, something you rarely got to see in that era. There are moments that drag a bit in The Pirate, but a glimpse of this milieu always gets things going again.

While the Cole Porter score doesn’t have the fire of his best works, the cheerfully tuneful Be a Clown is a high point. Garland and Kelly dance to the tune, but the highlight is Kelly’s dance with the Nicholas Brothers Harold and Fayard. They were a well-matched trio because all three dancers favored athletic, precise moves and high-energy choreography.

While it doesn’t have the robust roster of tunes to make it the best and brightest of the MGM musicals, this delightfully odd production is hugely entertaining, with its stars clearly enjoying the strange, but fascinating tone of it all.

Special features on the disc include commentary by historian John Fricke, a making-of featurette, a vintage comedy short and cartoon, a stereo remix of Mack the Black, song outtakes, promotional radio interviews with Garland and Kelly, 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.

Jan 13, 2021

Book Review--Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s


Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s 
Kimberly Truhler 
Good Knight Books, 2020 

Having read as many books about film noir as humanly possible, with the publication of Kimberly Truhler’s Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s I was surprised to realize it was the first I’d read dedicated to the fashion of the genre. Given how influential the looks from these years have been on style, all the way to the present day, that’s surprising. Truhler ably manages the task of exploring the most distinctive looks of forties noir, how they were created, and their influence on fashion. 

Film Noir Style covers twenty films, appropriately arranged in sections relative to World War II. By dividing the selections into pre-war, wartime, transition, and post-war, Truhler is able to note the dramatic changes in style that came with each period, where rationing, changes in the status of women, and a radically shifting United States all played a role in the looks that made it to the screen. Because those changes were so dramatic, it helps that each section begins with an general overview of each period covered.

Truhler notes the direct line from German Expressionism to Film Noir, as directors like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg brought a shadowy style with them to Hollywood after cutting their teeth at the famous German studio UFA. This moodiness extends to the clothing: dark, sensual, and spare due to wartime rationing.

While many of the most famous designers are represented here: Irene, Edith Head, and Orry-Kelly among them, I was especially fascinated to learn about lesser-known costumers who created highly influential work, like RKO’s Edward Stevenson (Out of the Past [1947], Murder My Sweet [1944]) and Universal’s Vera West (The Killers [1946]). Some of these artisans seem to have drawn inspiration from their own noir-like lives, with West the most unfortunately similar to a doomed character she might have costumed.

The film selection features many clear noir classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Laura (1944), but also includes some interesting outliers like The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Lady in the Lake (1946). While they didn’t all strike me as solid noirs (not entirely in agreement that Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious [1946] is a noir, though it’s not completely off-base as a choice), they work well together as a reflection of genre style.

While the book is filled with jaw dropping pictures of many of the fashions discussed, I found myself a bit frustrated by their arrangement. It would have been nice to have seen more of the photos presented alongside the text describing them and perhaps have some sort of footnote-like reference to make everything easy to find. Of course, it would have been ideal, and likely very difficult to manage, to have pictures of all the costumes described in the book, but the representation here is excellent. Just have a good search engine on hand.

Overall this is a thoughtfully written book which elegantly pulls together the threads of society, cinema, and the brilliance of costumers. In the end I was struck by how personal costuming can be: created for specific characters, plots, and body shapes, and yet it can influence the daily fashion choices of a wide audience around the world and across time. Something to think about the next time you shop for a trench coat or a dramatic black gown.

Many thanks to Smith Publicity for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 6, 2021

On Blu-ray: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Mortal Storm (1940)


The Mortal Storm (1940) presents a personal view of how the Nazi regime first began to devastate the world. It finds the poison at the root of its rise and demonstrates how quickly it spread. While it is a difficult film to watch, the charm of its stars and director Frank Borzage’s powerful imagery make it simultaneously fascinating. I recently revisited the film via a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Margaret Sullavan stars as Freya Roth, a German college student, daughter to the respected Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), on the edge of being engaged to Fritz, one of his students (Robert Young), and loved by Martin, her lifelong friend (Jimmy Stewart). She lives with her parents (mother Emilia played by Irene Rich) and her brothers (Robert Stack and William T. Orr). 

A peaceful family birthday celebration with these core characters is halted by the news that Adolf Hitler has become chancellor. Their lives are  changed in a moment. The intrusion is abrupt and decisive. 

Immediately the ideological divisions among the once cheerfully united guests are made clear. All that came before, joyful scenes of skiing, singing in the pub, the birth of a foal, is slapped away. The rules of society shift. 

Nazi salutes are expected. Soldiers beat non-believers in the street. No one is immune, a fact illustrated by the varied struggles of the young as symbolized by a teenage housemaid (a touching Bonita Granville), Martin’s morally solid mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), and the sudden upheaval of the lives of everyone who falls in between. 

Of course it’s clear from the beginning that the entitled and briskly regimental Fritz is not the man for gentle Freya. This is one of the last of the four films Sullavan and Stewart starred in together (also Next Time We Love [1936], The Shopworn Angel [1938], The Shop Around the Corner [1940]) and their low-key camaraderie is more soothing than sizzling, but they are an appealing team. 

As the heads of the Roth family, Morgan and Rich demonstrate the kind of affection and loyalty the younger couple could achieve in later years. In a harrowing prison meet-up, Borzage’s elegant composition gives the pair a moment of intimacy in the midst of the horror. Simple, spare, but somehow warm compositions like these give the film an air of wistfulness for better times and a sense of what’s good and what’s worth fighting for. 

It’s impossible to miss the parallels to the present day: the turn to ideology over empathy, science, learning, even logic. This tense, scary milieu is made more meaningful decades later, where you know that things can better, and they can get worse, but there are always good people who are determined to fight for the greater good. 

Special features on the disc include the cartoon Peace on Earth, the short Meet the Fleet, 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.

Dec 29, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up


Little Miss Movies Podcast 
December 1, 2020 

I was both charmed and fascinated by this family podcast hosted by Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice, her husband Joshua Fialkov and their precocious fifth-grader daughter Gable. In each episode the trio discusses the classic films Gable’s parents have, in their words, forced her to watch. Fortunately she is clearly a willing victim. Rice and Fialkov are adept at asking the right questions and Gable is an insightful young film fan. Her ultimate take on Citizen Kane was on-the-mark and a revelation to me after years of watching the film.
The Treatment 
December 8, 2020 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this discussion about Stanley Kubrick between host Elvis Mitchell and author David Mikics is the pair’s efforts to determine the filmmaker’s style. What is the common thread in his diverse works? It’s a thoughtful and engrossing conversation.
Maltin On Movies 
October, 9 2020 

The beloved and respected film scholar and Wesleyan University cinema professor Jeanine Basinger has known Leonard Maltin since he was a teen. Because of that long history, whenever she is a guest on his podcast they have a charming habit of sharing each other’s stories. There’s all sorts of fascinating tidbits in this episode, including Basinger’s experiences hosting Joan Crawford at Wesleyan and the time she had to hire three stenographers to translate Kay Francis’ juicy diaries.
The Old Soul Movie Podcast 
November 27, 2020 

I enjoyed this affectionate tribute to Eartha Kitt by hosts Jack and Emma Oremus. They do a great job covering her turbulent childhood, varied career, and plain-spoken activism. I appreciated the way they nailed so many of the unique traits that made her special.
Switchblade Sisters 

This discussion of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) with director Zeuna Durra is deeply satisfying because she weaves the personal with the professional beautifully in her awestruck assessment of this mysterious film. I also felt painfully her frustration at losing her kids' interest in classic film after showing them Disney flicks.

Dec 24, 2020

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 22, 2020

On Blu-ray: The Glorious Quartet of Loy, Powell, Harlow, and Tracy in Libeled Lady (1936)

The first time I watched Libeled Lady (1936), in the midst of my stunned teenage discovery of Jean Harlow, was on a well-worn VHS I’d borrowed from the library. What a gigantic shift it was to see it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive; it looks and sounds so sharp and clean it feels like a different film.

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrasting personas of the cast in this lightly entertaining comedy. There’s the crisp and amusing William Powell and Myrna Loy, already comfortable playing off each other in a cool, but pleasant manner as they would in several films. Juxtaposed with this is the earthier appeal of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, who are less suited to each other, but similar in the way they always project an aura of honesty.

This is a film that rests on its star power. For the most part, with the notable exception of Walter Connolly, playing Loy’s exasperated father, these four carry Libeled Lady. Loy plays a carefree socialite who finds herself the victim of false reporting. Tracy is the guilty reporter who in his desperation to avoid litigation enlists Powell to trap Loy in a real scandal to negate the false one. He convinces his eternally frustrated fiancĂ© Harlow to marry Powell, temporarily of course, as a part of his scheme.

Though her screen time is brief compared to her fellow stars, Harlow steals Libeled Lady. She’s effortlessly mesmerizing, playing big and loud one moment only to dial it down with subtle, sweet moments of silent acting, like a charming scene where she realizes Powell is more honorable than she thought. It’s heartbreaking to realize this was her last great role, with only Personal Property (1937) and a partially completed appearance in Saratoga (1937) to come before her death at age twenty-six. Here she appears ready to take her comedy chops to another level, a skilled comedienne who endured the brutal public scrutiny of learning onscreen only to become the best in the game.

As much as I love the ease of Powell and Loy together, I enjoyed the sizzling chemistry between real life lovers Powell and Harlow even more. Their emotional connection translated to the screen, much like Bogart and Bacall. There is a warmth and shared humor between them that comes through in their few scenes together, even when they’re supposed to be at odds with each other. It’s fascinating to imagine what kinds of movies more Powell and Harlow pairings could have produced.

Libeled Lady is solid entertainment with all the elements in place: a witty script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, smooth direction by Jack Conway, and a quartet of stars working at their peak. It was a pleasure to be able to see and hear it anew with such clarity.

Special features on the disc include the comedy short Keystone Hotel, an MGM short New Shoes, the cartoon Little Cheeser, audio for the Leo is on the Air radio promo, 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.

Dec 16, 2020

On Olive Films Signature Blu-ray: Ford, Wayne, and O'Hara United for the First Time in Rio Grande (1950)

Rio Grande (1950) marks an interesting point in the careers of both director John Ford and star John Wayne. It was a time when the men were maturing into their later careers, where they would both try variations on their well-established images. It’s the last film of Ford’s loosely arranged cavalry trilogy (including Fort Apache [1948] and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949]). It wasn’t a work of great consequence for Ford, and he felt the cavalry milieu was played out, but he couldn’t help lending his magic to even a tale as well-worn as this one. In a new features-packed Olive Signature Blu-ray release of the film, I had the opportunity to go a little deeper into the production of the film and appreciate its complexities. 

This was the first film of the legendary five film screen partnership between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (they’d both already signed for The Quiet Man [1952], but hadn’t started production), and from the beginning their chemistry was profound. They play an estranged husband and wife: Wayne is Captain Kirby, who leads his men at an isolated cavalry outpost, O’Hara comes to him after a long separation, because her son (Claude Jarman Jr.) has enlisted after failing to make the grade in school and she worries for his safety. 

The family drama is the heart of the film, while the action comes from the threatened attack of hostile Apaches who force the soldiers to attempt to escort the women and children at the base to a safer location. Even understanding the different mindset at the time the film was made, I still struggle with the way the Native people here are portrayed as faceless and vicious. That said, my perception of these characters was forever changed when I interviewed former child actress Karolyn Grimes several years ago (she’s the one that says “Uncle Timmy” and rings the church bell). She remembered being fascinated by how indigenous actors loved playing cards and drinking soda pop between takes. 

As a sort of seasoning to these sequences, there are also several cowboy-tinged musical interludes by the Sons of Pioneers group, beautiful location shooting in the Moab, Utah setting in the Professor Valley, and an astonishing scene of stunt riding featuring Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. The latter is a remarkable sequence in which the men leap up to stand on top of two horses, a foot on each, and ride them chariot style, even clearing a six foot jump (in an interview included in the special features, Johnson is nonchalant about the dangerous stunt, saying he had a great foothold). As a counterbalance to this athletic show stopping, Victor McLaglen is reliably cheerful and crusty as a sergeant who could probably be cut entirely out of the film, but what would a Ford western be without him? 

You can see how the film might have felt simultaneously lacking in story and a little busy at the time of its release, but it’s all done so well and with such remarkable people that it nevertheless stands as a classic. 

One of the most impressive things about Olive Signature releases is the careful curation of disc special features. The company always finds a perfect balance of addressing the elements of a film that need further exploration without overwhelming with too many features or including items that are of little value. There’s a typically satisfying array of offerings included in the Rio Grande release. 

Claude Jarman Jr. is one of the underrated storytellers of old Hollywood, and here in a brief interview he demonstrates his remarkable recall as he shares stories from his career overall and his role as Wayne’s son. Wayne’s real son and business associate Patrick Wayne offers a more personal perspective about his father’s experience on the set, in addition to his own memories about working on location. I was most appreciative to hear industry veteran and New Mexico-born Native Raoul Trujillo’s thoughts on the portrayal of Native Americans in the film; this feature helped me to unpack my still-conflicted feelings about the way they were depicted in this 70-year-old film. Other special features include a retrospective of the music in the film by Marc Wanamaker, a video essay by Tag Gallagher, an essay in the disc’s booklet by Paul Andrew Hutton, a theatrical trailer, and a vintage featurette about the film hosted by a very young Leonard Maltin which is valuable because it features interviews with several of the stars before they passed. 

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a disc for review.