On Blu-ray--Edward G. Robinson Spans Decades in The Sea Wolf (1941) and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)

Has Edward G. Robinson ever performed badly in a film? I don’t think the possibility was in his DNA. He is one of the most reliable stars of the studio age, making classics sing and elevating lesser films with an inborn understanding for character and performance. In a pair of films now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the actor demonstrates how his style evolved as Hollywood moved into the age of television.

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) stars Alan Ladd, though Robinson’s impact is such that the true matter of top billing can become confused. The film is a production of Ladd’s company Jaguar, which had a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Filmed in Warnercolor and Cinemascope, it is engineered to draw audiences away from their television sets, but in every other way this is a straight ahead noir production.

Ladd is an ex-con, ex-cop who has just left prison after serving time for a crime for which he was framed. Set on revenge and scornful of his unfaithful nightclub chanteuse wife (Joanne Dru), he takes no joy from his release. Robinson is the brutal mobster in his cross hairs.

It is the performances, and the sharpness of the color cinematography that give this San Francisco-set noir its power. One can never have enough William Demarest, and as Ladd’s ex-partner he doesn’t have enough to do, but he is a welcome presence for his brief scenes. As Robinson’s henchman, Paul Stewart is subtle, rather than sniveling, in his portrayal of a weak willed man who is destructive because he lacks the courage to act. As she tended to do in her later roles, Fay Wray plays Stewart’s ex-film star girlfriend with the wounded dignity and frustration of a woman who knows she is above it all and is waiting for the rest of the world to catch on. In her one extended scene, she gives Stewart a hard look, asking him for strength that he doesn’t have and in that brief moment you know all about her troubles.

While he has a lot to contend with as co-star with Robinson, Ladd is a fascinating tough guy. There have never been enough action heroes of short stature in the movies, which is a shame. There’s something explosive about a man who doesn’t lean on physical appearance to make an impact. His strength is in his focus and physical skill, which are much more exciting to watch than a towering man who seems to have the deck stacked in his favor.

Robinson dominates the film though, as he can’t seem to help doing. It’s terrifying the way he holds his victims in a seductive viper’s gaze, head still, eyes focused, often with only his jaw in motion, working the nerves with a barrage of abuse. He had great control of his body, like a trained dancer. There’s no wasted movement and he never flails, lashing out like a viper with surgical precision when he needs to make a point. Ladd has some of these qualities as well, but he’s got an icier core. You can imagine Robinson relishing a good meal; Ladd seems empty of that kind of capacity for pleasure.

Keep your eyes open for a brief Jayne Mansfield cameo in a nightclub scene.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film.

While Hell on Frisco Bay is an enjoyable crime flick, The Sea Wolf (1941) is a tightly-wounded Warner-style masterpiece. It has everything that made the studio great: powerful, charismatic stars, gritty atmosphere and brisk pacing.

Set on a ship with a rogue captain (Robinson) and a crew mostly unaware of the danger it faces, this adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Hawk (the name was changed to avoid clashing with Errol Flynn’s action flick of the same name) has that pulsing feeling of dread in found in other sea classics like The Ghost Ship (1943) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Much like the former film, the ship here often has the shadowy, misty look of a haunted house, foreshadowing the increasingly less mysterious evil at play on board.

With intense leads like Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino, it’s a wonder The Sea Wolf doesn’t explode from the tension. There are many spurts of action throughout the film, but it’s just as exciting to watch Lupino and Garfield have a quiet conversation or listen to Robinson discuss poetry. Whatever the tone of the scene, these three demand your attention in a strikingly visceral way.

The supporting cast is also uniformly solid. Barry Fitzgerald provides a hint of levity as the cook. As the ship’s doctor, Gene Lockhart also stands out; he’s a broken man who is painfully aware of what a sleazy enterprise he supports. In an early role, Howard Da Silva begins to develop that smooth voice which would eventually be such a slippery delight in crime films to come. As a reassuringly bland writer who is dragged onto the ship with Lupino, Alexander Knox provides some relief from the tightly-wound style of the leads and ship’s crew.

It’s a great ensemble effort, perfectly executed and beautifully paced. This breathless thriller is worthy of classic status.

This release is especially important because it is the first time since the film's release that the full original cut has been available. It was cut by several minutes for its re-release in 1949 and seeing the complete film, I am glad that Warners held off on this Blu-ray debut until that footage was restored.

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

Book Review: Francis Ford Coppola Talks Film and Innovation

Live Cinema and Its Techniques
Francis Ford Coppola
Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

When Live Cinema and Its Techniques landed on my doorstep, I approached it with personal interest, though skeptical that it would be of interest to the readers of A Classic Movie Blog. Written to be a guide to producing live cinema, a concept that Coppola had made the focus of a pair of elaborate workshops which he describes in the book, I thought it would perhaps be too technical to be of general interest. While this short volume does have its technical aspects, its appeal is more wide ranging than I expected, dipping into film and television history, Coppola’s career and his practical and humane philosophies about working with cast and crew. Call it a technical, autobiographical film history.

Coppola’s book is diverse because the concept of live cinema encompasses so many aspects of film and television history. The essential idea is that a film be made live, like an early television drama, but filmed using cinematic methods and staging. As a counterpoint to an industry that is almost exclusively made of canned product, it is meant to bring energy and a pioneering spirit back to a medium in which filmmakers typically use modern innovation to make movies in much the same way they have been made for decades.

In order to explain the idea of live cinema, and perhaps also convince filmmakers of its worth, Coppola conceived the book as a technical manual and production guidebook. He is a storyteller though, driven by history, full of interesting anecdotes and continually excited about his profession. Here Coppola tells his life story as much as he provides guidance, divulging how he helped his The Godfather leads bond by having them sit down to a meal together, sharing an embarrassing Academy Awards ceremony experience where a pot-laced cookie caused him to make an entertaining mess of the best director presentation and many stories of how he faced failure by taking even greater risks.

It’s an interesting variety of observations, interwoven with film and television history tidbits, which ultimately reveals a compassionate, passionate artist who approaches his craft with a collaborative, family-minded perspective. His focus on filmmaking and appreciation for different points of view and the needs of his cast and crew make me think of the best of filmmaking talent today. I don’t know if directors like Ava Du Vernay and Barry Jenkins have looked to Coppola as a role model, but their positive, enthusiastic and people-focused approached to production is similar and points to what the act of filmmaking should be in an age where the worst aspects of the industry are coming to light.

Live Cinema is essential reading for filmmakers and Coppola fanatics. More casual readers may be less impressed with the technical aspects of the book, but there are enough anecdotes and fascinating tidbits throughout to make it a generally engrossing read.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell Triple Features

I’ve appreciated Warner Archive’s strategy of packaging lesser known flicks in thematically arranged sets. It’s a great way to rediscover forgotten titles and get exposure to movies that, while worth a look, might not be of enough interest to justify individual release. With the recent release of a pair of triple features starring the beloved character actors Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell I got a bit of what I expected along those lines, but also some wonderful surprises.

Sharp-witted, high energy Glenda Farrell was one of the most reliably entertaining supporting and sometimes starring performers of the studio age, finding her peak as the fast-talking bright spot in many films in the 1930s including a series in which she starred as reporter Torchy Blane. Oddly, she doesn’t quite have that magnetic presence in this trio of films. She is a welcome sight, but somehow not playing to her strengths.

The best of the three is The Law in Her Hands (1936), in which she plays wing woman to Margaret Lindsay. They are well matched as a pair of recently graduated lawyers who overcome sexism and their rookie status by hooking up with a mobster who is predictably in need of constant representation. Lindsay has a lawyer boyfriend who insists that she stop being a success at her career and settle down to cleaning his apartment and having babies. Unsurprisingly, the scenes with Lindsay and Farrell have the most zest.

Here Comes Carter (1936) is pretty much a flop due to the unpleasant presence of leading man Ross Alexander as an obnoxious radio gossip. There’s not a lot of Farrell zing in her performance as the on air star’s girlfriend. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had much to play off of. Sadly, Alexander would commit suicide less than a year later at age 29, on the anniversary of his wife’s own suicide.

Farrell fades into the ensemble as the former fan dancer wife of a stage producer in Dance Charlie Dance (1937). It stars the hapless Stuart Erwin as a man with an inheritance who decides to invest in a play so that he can raise money to buy a hotel in his hometown. Jean Muir costars as a kind secretary who helps the neophyte investor. The story, with its crummy show that becomes an accidental hit is reminiscent of The Producers (1967), though success leads to a different set of problems.

While the Farrell triple feature was a somewhat entertaining jaunt for this Glenda completist, the Guy Kibbee triple feature was full of delights. I found something to love in each of the films and enjoyed seeing a less sleazy side of this most valuable Warner Bros play (which is not to say his sleazier roles lack enjoyment).

Mary Jane’s Pa (1935) is an odd little flick about a newspaper editor (Kibbee) who gets the wanderlust and abandons his much younger wife (Aline MacMahon) and daughters. He thinks that he is leaving them financially healthy, but an investment goes sour and MacMahon must struggle to make the newspaper a success. As the years pass, she does just that and even begins to fall in love with a local politician.

Then Kibbee reappears, and though he deserves nothing more than a kick out the door, he bonds with his daughters, becomes a housemaid for his skeptical wife and finds out where the bodies are buried before it’s too late. It’s a pleasantly busy little flick, with an somewhat unsettling, precocious performance by Betty Jean Hainey as the titular Mary Jane. While it’s impossible to believe that Kibbee and MacMahon could have ever had the hots for each other, they are well matched and make an essentially ridiculous situation seem almost plausible.

In The Big Noise (1936) Kibbee is a textile factory owner who gets shoved out of his own company. He moves to California for his health, but ends up buying into a dry cleaner and taking on the mob protection racket. It was so fun to watch Kibbee play this determined, clever and lovable character. He perfectly embodies the optimism and can do spirit of a successful businessman. Marie Wilson of the My Friend Irma series is also charming playing a similar dim bulb character as a laundry employee.

My favorite of the trio is Going Highbrow (1935), in which Kibbee and Zasu Pitts pair up as a newly rich couple who become social climbers. Kibbee is reassuringly avuncular as a game guy who will cheerfully do anything to please his wife and Pitts is pleasingly high strung as a woman who may be a bit pretentious, but never cruel or disloyal.

The supporting cast here is especially delightful, with Edward Everett Horton reliably fluttering around the edges of the action. This was the first time I’d seen a film with June Martel, who was so down-to-earth and yet intriguing as a waitress Kibbee helps that I was thoroughly depressed to find she didn’t make many films. Judy Canova pops with charisma as Martel’s supportive waitress friend; she makes a lot of a role that isn’t written as fascinating as she plays it.

Overall this is such an interesting set, with unusual stories, great performances and a chance to see Kibbee center stage and at his best.

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.

Favorite Film Books of 2017

This was an especially inspiring year of reviewing film books at A Classic Movie Blog. I learned a lot and found so many new areas I wanted to explore, thanks to a truly marvelous selection of new releases. It wasn't easy to pick favorites, but this batch stood out because I was reluctant to finish each of these books and I thought about them a little longer than the others. I have excerpted my reviews below, titles link to the full post:

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s, Charles Taylor

Perhaps the best thing about Taylor's analysis is that he gives everything its proper due. He doesn't make claims for Godfather-level greatness when discussing these movies, but he does find their worth, both in pure entertainment value and the social commentary they offer. He discusses the shock value of Prime Cut (1972), while acknowledging what it has to say about the frustration and despair of the Vietnam era. Moments are allowed to exist for the thrill of it, but underlying themes of gender politics, injustice and the like are folded into the analysis.

It is also encouraging the way Taylor can celebrate 'B' cinema while also acknowledging its casualties. As much fun as exploitation can be, it often takes women, people of color and other marginalized groups as its victims. He finds room to appreciate the films, while also condemning the humiliations they inflict. In an unusual, and laudable move, he also relies heavily on the words of female critics to support his views.

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood's Golden Era, James Bawden and Ron Miller

In his introduction to the book, Miller outlines his rules for interviews, which are grounded in respect for the humanity and personal privacy of his subjects. He reveals that often that regard for boundaries would lead to more confidences shared rather than less. For that reason, both he and Bawden, who seems to have taken a similar approach, drew something richer than a production history or a few benign on-set remembrances from these stars. You learn how Bette Davis was so disgusted kissing poor, sour-faced Edward G. Robinson that she had to close her eyes or get the low-down on Jane Russell’s conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn Monroe. The stars stay remarkable to the reader for the unusual lives they’ve led, but they also become more human.

This is an addictive book. It’s charming, revealing and graceful in a way that speaks to the past. I would hope every aspiring journalist would read this and take a lesson from the rewards these men reaped by simply treating others with respect.

Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, Scott Eyman

I’ve always felt that platonic relationships don’t get enough attention from biographers, though they can often be the source of the most fascinating stories. With his new book, Hank & Jim, Scott Eyman demonstrates just how satisfying it can be to explore an enduring friendship. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart offered each other solace that they couldn’t find from anyone else and their complex personas and uncomplicated bond make for an intriguing history.

The first part of the book is most rich with stories of the two. As they move on to marriage, parenthood and varied careers, their stories diverge for long periods. For a while, it feels like the best of their years together are behind them, but in the closing chapters the full meaning of their friendship emerges and it is incredibly moving.

Anne Bancroft: A Life, Douglass K. Daniel

As much as Bancroft craved and thrived living the actor’s life, she valued her family equally, if not more, and often made her personal life a priority. One of the most pleasing elements of the book is the way it explores her relationship with her second husband Mel Brooks. While this pairing of comedian and dramatic actress always seemed to puzzle the public, their marriage is one of the great Hollywood love stories. The pair was steadfastly devoted, living with compassion for each other, working around hectic schedules to be together and celebrating each other’s successes without a hint of jealousy.

Daniel takes a straightforward approach to telling Bancroft’s story, easily weaving together the personal and the professional. Given the wealth of material he has gotten from his sources, he wisely avoids adding his own analysis of the actress and lets her friends and associates fill out the details of her personality. The result is a rich, authentic portrait which effectively captures her essence.

Dangerous to Know, Renee Patrick

This is a mystery for those who think that cocktails, and conversation, should sparkle. Set in late 1930s Hollywood, when the word Hitler sent a chill down many a spine, and David O. Selznick was about to set his version of Atlanta aflame, it exists in a world of classic movies and pre-war intrigue. This installment follows Design for Dying, which like this book features Hollywood social secretary Lillian Frost and a fictionalized Edith Head, who in addition to their daily duties, solve mysteries on the side. Written by Renee Patrick, the pen name for husband and wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, this engaging riff on the past juggles laughs, intrigue and suspense with a pleasing zest.

The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez, Dan Van Neste

Though co-star to Stanwyck, Garbo, Young and Crawford, Ricardo Cortez has never achieved big name recognition in his own right. Classic film fans know him and love him, especially pre-code fanatics, but he is not familiar to the average movie fan. He never made a bonafide classic, but he's been in a lot of well-made films, like the underrated 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Midnight Mary (1933) and Wonder Bar (1934). Now in a new biography, Dan Van Neste gives this fascinating, but notoriously private actor and director his due.

I know that this book has been eagerly anticipated by many and I am happy to report that it is an entertaining, informative read that does its subject justice. A must for fans of the actor and pre-code lovers in particular.

Wayne and Ford: The Films, The Friendship and The Forging of an American Hero, Nancy Shoenberger

Schoenberger looks for insight into this unusual relationship by digging into their personal lives and films. As both men often had great control over the way their movies were made, they were often a reflection of who they were. Despite the differences in their personalities and relationships, in their cinematic explorations of love, duty and what it is to be a man, the two are found to have similar values.

While there was not much that was new to me here, having read individual biographies of Wayne and Ford, being able to focus on their bond and films helped me to better understand the influence they had on each other and their public.

Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women in Hollywood, Alicia Malone

Malone has selected an interesting array of women to spotlight in the profiles that make up the bulk of her book. Her focus is intersectional and she covers creative, executive and technical professionals in her survey of female professionals. Her intention is to provide a brief overview of various issues and women in the interest of inspiring readers to dig deeper into each subject and there is a great list of books for further reading in the select biography.

I found this a satisfying reference in itself though; it would be a great starting point for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood. As much as they were denied, women have innovated a lot in this industry, from Dorothy Arzner inventing the boom mike and Ida Lupino and Lois Weber bringing social issues to popular cinema, to Margaret Booth all but creating the concept of film editor as the first person to hold that job title.

My deepest respect to these authors and all that they do to inform and entertain film lovers!

Book Review--Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film

Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film
Alicia Malone
Mango Publishing, 2017

I’ve been an admirer of film reporter and critic Alicia Malone ever since she came across my radar as a presenter for the FilmStruck streaming service. If you want to cover classic film as a reporter, you can’t study it, you have to have had a pile of VHS tapes stuck somewhere back in your childhood. It’s got to be in your blood. This is true of Malone, as she describes in the introduction of her powerful book Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women in Film. She seems to have retained every film fact she’s ever learned through long years of fandom and she’s got great insight into everything she's absorbed, which makes this review of the female element of Hollywood all the more meaningful.

Despite being shut out of many opportunities over the years, the history of women in film is the history of film. Backwards and in Heels focuses on the Hollywood industry, which in its early years was filled with powerful women, only changing when making movies became a business and men took over. Malone follows the story of women in Hollywood from the silent years to the current day. As can be expected, it is often a frustrating history; we have lost so much simply because the talents of women, a half of our population, have been underused in the American film industry. There is also hope though, as seen in the stories of women like Geena Davis, Sherry Lansing Ava DuVernay and editor Joi McMillon who have pushed forward with passion, determination and creativity. Women have a long way to go in Hollywood, but they are definitely on their way.

Malone has selected an interesting array of women to spotlight in the profiles that make up the bulk of her book. Her focus is intersectional and she covers creative, executive and technical professionals in her survey of female professionals. Her intention is to provide a brief overview of various issues and women in the interest of inspiring readers to dig deeper into each subject and there is a great list of books for further reading in the select biography.

I found this a satisfying reference in itself though; it would be a great starting point for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood. As much as they were denied, women have innovated a lot in this industry, from Dorothy Arzner inventing the boom mike and Ida Lupino and Lois Weber bringing social issues to popular cinema, to Margaret Booth all but creating the concept of film editor as the first person to hold that job title.

Malone has become a strong advocate for the promotion of women in Hollywood, including giving two Ted talks and several other speaking engagements. Her voice is incredibly valuable, because as she makes clear in the book, we are starting to see progress because the conversation about achieving parity in Hollywood is now ongoing and alive. As long as people in the industry keep talking, these issues will remain top of mind. I hope that she will continue to lead as a voice for this issue, speaking for the women who built Hollywood and those who will push it forward into a much more inclusive future.

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

The Christmas spirit always truly envelopes me when I hear Deanna Durbin sing Silent Night.

I watch this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) every year, because it gives me a feeling of peace that I feel should be a part of the season, but because of the chaos of celebration and preparation often isn't. Now in an increasingly chaotic world, I find it even more comforting and inspiring. I hope Deanna Durbin knew how much joy she spread by simply sharing her voice.

Happy Holidays, Solstice, New Year or whatever it is that inspires you to eat, drink and be merry. Thank you for reading.

On Blu-ray: Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958) is an outrageously charming film. It insists on your love. Against all odds it even charmed my Taylor Swift-loving skeptical tween. As she sat there howling at Rosalind Russell attempting and failing to master the complexities of a telephone switchboard I felt the awe of a true classic. Now this utterly adorable film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

While the story of Auntie Mame began as a pair of novels written by Patrick Dennis, the film is more closely based on the stage production, which was inspired by the writer’s first book about his frisky heroine. It was a career rejuvenating success for Russell, as would be the film. When she took Mame to the big screen, her stage costars Yuki Shimodo (as her high-spirited butler) and Peggy Cass (as the hapless secretary Agnes Gooch) would come with her.

The most famous line to come from Auntie Mame is Russell’s in-character proclamation that “life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” That is in essence the heart of this film, in which the alternately wealthy and near destitute, but always vibrantly adventurous Mame navigates her way through life. As the story begins, she is united with her newly-orphaned nephew Patrick. While she has no intention of giving up her wildly eccentric lifestyle, one of the most endearing aspects of her character is that she immediately showers her new charge with love and dedicates herself to his happiness and well-being.

As Patrick grows up and Mame finds herself in varying degrees of prosperity, the pair encounters a cast of characters with an eccentric energy much like Preston Sturges’ regular ensemble. The interaction between these players is in essence a clash between living with abandon and pursuing so-called respectability.

On one side there is Mame’s best gal pal the actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne) who wakes up most mornings with a hangover in her bestie's spare bedroom, Ms. Gooch who goes from drinking Dr. Pepper to black out drunkenness and unplanned pregnancy, and the always game Ito who doesn’t bat an eye at any of it. On the other there is everyone’s favorite excuse for smashing the patriarchy, the authoritative Fred Clark as Dwight Babcock, executor of Patrick’s fortune and education, the young boy’s vapid upper class girlfriend Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes), and her hideously anti-Semitic parents Doris and Claude Upson (Lee Patrick and Willard Waterman). These broadly-drawn characters are perfectly cast support to Russell, who seems to be living her role. Altogether, it is a wildly entertaining ensemble; there is never a threat of boredom.

As delightful as the cast is the look of Auntie Mame. Russell and Browne in particular have such drool-worthy costumes that I can’t believe this production is not known as a fashion film. The sets are also a lot of fun, as Mame goes through several different phases which she reflects in her interior decoration. I particularly love a cocktail party scene where she tortures her guests by lowering and raising her Avant garde couches with a series of pulleys.

There is so much to recommend this vibrant, colorful film with true substance and love at its core. It is a treat to finally be able to enjoy it on Blu-ray.

The bright colors and elaborate sets of Auntie Mame look sharp and clean on the Blu-ray. Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film, a trailer for the Lucille Ball-starring musical version of the story Mame (1974), which shows how drab and horrifying it is in comparison. There is also a music-only audio track which highlights Bronislaw Kaper’s score, which I found curious since the music is the one element of the film that I don’t find at all memorable.

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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