On Blu-ray/DVD: The Restoration of A Gem, Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1950) with Simone Simon

Olivia (1950) (also known as The Pit of Loneliness) is a treasure that came out of nowhere for me. Set in a nineteenth-century French boarding school, much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), it reveals a battleground in the most elegant of settings. A landmark in queer cinema and a triumph for Jacqueline Audry as a rare female director at the time, it is also simply an engaging and beautifully crafted film. I recently had the opportunity to watch a new release of the film on DVD from Icarus Films.

As the titular heroine, Marie-Claire Olivia plays an English schoolgirl who is transferred to a French boarding school in the hopes it will be a happier place for her than the institute she previously attended in her homeland. At first, she is delighted with her new surroundings. She revels in the kindness of her fellow students and the relative freedom of more relaxed rules.

However, she is soon overcome by the continual battle between headmistresses Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon) for the affections of the students and her own passionate crush on Julie. Miss Cara is sickly, or so she claims, and self-pitying, coaxing the students to pamper her and bristling when she doesn’t rule their hearts. Miss Julie is more self-assured when it comes to winning the affections of the students, though she is no more confident or content with herself as she cruelly plays with their affections, drawing them in only to push them away when her desires conflict with propriety.

Both the head mistresses and the students are frank in the sensuality of their affections. Their intimacy as they clutch hands, sit closely in conversation, or cozily feed each other pralines is acceptable by the standards of their world. That closeness is meant to be temporary as they prepare themselves to be the wives of important men. When Olivia struggles to keep that perspective, Julie fails to set her straight, perhaps because she doesn’t want that conventional life for herself. As a result, their tense relationship further feeds the flames of competition between Julie and Cara.

The students live in a lush world of luxury, where they are well fed, swathed in fluttering lace, and occupied daily with light gossip about each other and, most of all, their two head mistresses. Not far beneath this façade of beauty and gentility there is the constant pressure of the conflict between Miss Cara and Miss Julie. In their fight for the girl’s affections, they end up punishing these innocents for their own dissatisfaction and repressed desires. The teachers and house staff observe this drama with a knowing eye, declining to step in. They are aware of their place and possibly not terribly concerned about their wealthy charges.

Jacqueline Audry was the first female director to distinguish herself to a wide audience in the post-World War II era. With Gigi (1949), she made her name by being the first to adapt Colette’s work to the screen, a task which the author had previously believed impossible, though she was delighted to be wrong. With that film she also made a star of Danièle Delorme, who played the title role.

Audry made Olivia early in her twenty year directing career, but she already possessed a sophisticated visual style. She situates her camera so that the audience always has a direct path to the feelings of her actresses. The dialogue is frank, but it is the silent emotions that Audry captures which reveal the instability of the residents of this candy-coated world.

Bonus features on the disc include 1950 and 2019 trailers for the films and a fascinating 1957 interview with Audry conducted by actor Jean Danet, whom she directed in La Garçonne (1957).

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

On DVD/Blu-Ray: Ann Dvorak Steals the Show in Out of the Blue (1947)

Director Leigh Jason’s Out of the Blue (1947) aims for screwball comedy, but doesn’t have the pace or cast to fit the bill. Instead, it is an offbeat ensemble piece with a few plot points that haven’t aged well and a supremely silly performance by Ann Dvorak.

Based on Vera Caspary’s (Laura) novel of the same name, Out of the Blue unfolds in a busy Greenwich Village apartment building. The timid Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent) sends his overbearing wife (Carole Landis) off to visit her sister for the weekend. When he goes to a restaurant for dinner, he meets tipsy barfly Olive Jensen (Ann Dvorak), who invites herself back to his apartment, but only because she wants to relieve him of his brandy. When Jensen won’t leave, and exacerbates things by succumbing to an apparently regular fainting spell, Earthleigh thinks she is dead and leaves her on his artist neighbor David Gelleo’s (Turhan Bey) terrace. Arthur hopes to get rid of both his own problem and the artist, whose dog digs up his wife’s zinnias, but David and his new girlfriend Deborah Tyler (Virginia Mayo) are a step ahead of him and playfully thwart his plans. All the while meddling neighbors Miss Spring (Elizabeth Patterson) and Miss Ritchie (Julia Dean) clutch their pearls and call the police with regularity.

This farcical set-up with a decent running time of 86 has a surprisingly languid pace. It starts at a decent clip, but gradually loses momentum. That is due in part to Leigh’s direction, but it doesn’t help that the rigid Brent is clearly not suited to comedy. While Bey and Mayo are more assured, they are too easygoing for screwball action. It is Dvorak who crackles; so much so that when she is absent there is a profound effect on the pacing.

However, it’s worth it to settle into the bizarre world of this film. The enviably lavish apartments with their expansive terraces would never belong to characters of these means, but they are a joy to behold. It’s great to see Bey in a non-exotic role, and he is quite adorable romancing an equally appealing Mayo in his goofy artist’s shorts and socks with sandals. Dvorak is a lot, but she intends to be and it’s great to see her given the opportunity to sink her teeth into such a strange role. Her character and what she goes through will be unsettling to modern eyes; she clearly needs help with her alcoholism and no one seems terribly bothered whether she is dead or passed out, but that vibe somehow fits with the weirdness of the plot, however uneasily.

This unusual comedy should ultimately be rewarding to fans of the stars. It is an essentially pleasant oddity and on the whole an enjoyable watch.

Out of the Blue (1947) has now been released on DVD/Blu-ray by ClassicFlix. The film looks and sounds great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a collection of trailers for other ClassicFlix releases.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Holiday Gift Guide 2019: Great Pins for Classic Film Fans

For this year's gift guide, I am shining a spotlight on one of my favorite ways to show classic movie love: gorgeous pins. There are so many amazing designs available. Here are some of my favorites. Shop names link to each site:

That beautiful Diahann Carroll (RIP) pin above is from Noire Culture Love. Also available: stunning pins featuring legends like Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, and Dorothy Dandridge. If you love something here, best to grab it fast, designs can sell out.

I love the sepia tones of these adorable silent film star pins designed by Julia Hutchinson. In addition to this lovely Anna May Wong design, she sells pins of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, and more.

Kate Gabrielle is a friend, and I have long been in awe of her artwork. Her classic film-themed enamel pins and button sets are a frequent sight at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it is evident she has many fans. I own several of her pins; my favorite is the Trip to the Moon pin because it's got an image that's been on my site banner for years. I am thinking this romantic Ginger and Fred design needs to be the newest addition to my collection.

I love the detail on this Cary Grant pin by P&C Poolside. Look at that perfect chin cleft! There's lots more designs for classic film fans in this Etsy shop.

This is a great set of Universal Monster pins from Yesterdays. I love that it is in black and white. I'm also fond of their VHS and 3D glasses pins.

Another great set of Univeral monster pins from DKNG.

Look at the beautiful shading on this pin featuring Conrad Veidt as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from Atom Age Industries.

You could know nothing about Peter Sellers or his magnificent performance in Being There (1979) and still appreciate the beauty of this pin from Midnight Dogs.

If you're looking for more gift ideas, check out my guides from previous years: 2018, 2016

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: November Round-up

It's been another great month of podcasts for classic film fans. I love how there is always something new and fascinating to discover. As always, if you have a podcast to share, even your own, please share in the comments. All episode titles link to the episode:

You Won't Forget Me
Torch Song (1953)
August 9, 2019

Two episodes in and I'm already a fan of this podcast devoted to Joan Crawford. The first episode is a thoughtful and informative exploration of  Joan's career-reviving MGM return Torch Song (1953). I've often felt this film was unfairly categorized as camp and I appreciated host Gabriela's appreciation of Crawford's emotional bravery in this role. I also recommend the new episode about Possessed (1931) with guest Gwenda Young (Clarence Brown's biographer).

Slate Plus: Flashback
Gaslight (1944)
May 5, 2019

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens and Vanity Fair movie critic K. Austin Collins are the co-hosts of this podcast about classic film. A lot of the content is behind a paywall, but there is enough for free in the archives to give you a taste of the show and help you to decide whether it's worth the Slate Plus subscription. I started with the first episode and was not surprised to love it as Stevens and Collins are two of my favorite voices on Twitter. They have a thoughtful conversation about the 1944 version of Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer and directed by George Cukor. Both are good at breaking down the details of the film and getting to the essence of its terror.

WWII Service on Celluloid
The Bridge on the River Kwai

Episode 30

The official podcast of the National World War II Museum is an interesting exploration of fiction versus fact in movies about WWII. I especially liked this episode about The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), because I knew so little about the events that inspired the source novel and the film. There’s also a shorter mini-sode which offers a brief overview of the production, but the full discussion with a well-informed panel of WWII experts in the longer episode is fascinating and well worth the listen.

Ticklish Business
Wait Until Dark (1967) with Liz Shannon Miller
Episode 75

Host Kristen Lopez discusses Audrey Hepburn's most intense film with guest Liz Shannon Miller. This is the most thorough discussion I've heard about the way the film approaches disability. 
Very thought provoking.

You Must Remember This

Disney's Most Controversial Film (Six Degrees of Song of the South, Episode 1)
October 21, 2019

I'm sure no fan of podcasts and classic film needs an introduction to Karina Longworth's impeccably researched show. It was such a delight to be back in Longworth's orbit again with this premiere her third season. Her first episode of a season-wide arc exploring the legacy of Disney's notorious Song of the South (1946) is as fascinating and addictive as the best of her work. Especially important is her emphasis that films like these didn't become controversial over time; as with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), there are always voices of dissent.

On Blu-ray: Fritz Lang's Moonfleet (1955)

As a Joan Greenwood and George Sanders completest, Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) was a must-see for me. It doesn’t live up to the promise of its exciting cast though, which also includes Stewart Granger, Viveca Lindfors, and Melville Cooper. At best, it’s got its moments, and a cast like that can’t entirely disappoint. I recently watched the film on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Moonfleet is the name of a coastal English village. It is there that the recently-orphaned John Mohune is sent to find his mother’s former lover, Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). On her deathbed, she felt this was the best course of action. Fox disagrees, but his enduring passion for Mohune’s mother makes him reluctantly take responsibility for the boy.

Fox lives as a gentleman and smuggles on the down low, so he attempts to smuggle young Mohune off to boarding school to avoid being a bad influence. When this fails and the boy returns, he draws him into his quest to find a valuable diamond.

Many liberties were taken with the plot and characters of 1898 source novel by English author J. Meade Falkner, which hadn’t been published in the United States until 1951. With its tales of smugglers and the search for riches, it was meant to have the thrills of Treasure Island, but was thought to be too grim a story for a faithful translation to work on the screen.

Even with dramatic changes though, the story never quite takes off. There’s some intrigue to the mystery of the diamond and a great fight scene in a pub featuring Granger that brought back a bit of the thrill of his legendary sword work in Scaramouche (1952). The production essentially lacks energy though. It’s disappointing that Greenwood and Sanders, perfectly cast as corrupt noble folk, don’t have better lines to purr with their equally alluring voices.

This film was a must-watch for me because of my regard for the talent involved, but it is a lackluster production overall.

As a special feature, the disc includes a trailer for the film.

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

On Blu-ray: Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year (1982)

My Favorite Year (1982) is an invigorating period piece, with uniformly excellent production values, script, and cast, but it runs deep because of a remarkable performance by Peter O’Toole. Starring as Errol Flynn-like rogue Alan Swann, a movie star whose best days are behind him, he is charming, funny, and devastating. I recently revisited the film on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

What a remarkable directing debut this was for actor Richard Benjamin (Westworld, The Last of Sheila). To hear him talk about it in a commentary included in the disc’s special features, he succeeded by encouraging a positive environment on the set, giving everyone in the production the opportunity to contribute, and above all his intuitive and intelligent leading man. While he was too dedicated to his craft to be a complete rogue, there are definitely parallels between the lives of O’Toole and the charming drunk Swann.

Swann has been hired to make an appearance on a live fifties television comedy variety show. However, he doesn’t know that the production is live until he is just about to step in front of the cameras. Before that moment of terror, he is a handful for the staff of the show, getting blackout drunk, disappearing, stealing dames beneath the noses of their fellas, and inspiring scandalous headlines.

Despite the trouble he causes, Swann is effortlessly charming, and he knows it. He casts his spell on everyone, including the young gag writer (Mark Linn-Baker) who has been enlisted to babysit him.

Rather than emulating the times, My Favorite Year evokes the spirit of a bright, bubbly MGM musical from the fifties. However, its comic pace and tone are closer to screwball, complete with  characters who are simultaneously lovable and exasperating.

As Swann, O’Toole was supposed to be a ravaged man, and he does show the effects of living in a smoke-filled environment, drink in hand. He has too much spirit to truly be in the dumps though, which makes his ultimate triumph believable. With those alluring blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a swoon-worthy way of paying attention to a lady, his erotic power almost seems to have increased with time.

O’Toole knew how to play a charming man who could get away with anything until he suddenly can’t. His creative contributions to the film were to more deeply reflect the man behind his movie star persona. Here his fate is happier than that of the real Flynn and it is because he is able to find the courage to face his true self.

That journey is emotionally resonant, and the impact it has is surprising, because for the most part the film is a wild comic ride, with snappy dialogue, goofy slapstick, and a feeling that everything is out of control. The transition from wildness to a quieter redemption is remarkably smooth.

Benjamin has gathered a fascinating cast to support O’Toole. Baker reminded me a lot of Benjamin himself, which makes me wonder how much influence he had over the actor. As a fellow stage actor, he connected with O’Toole and that shows in the way their give and take is so effortless. Though she has essentially been cast as a love interest for Baker, Jessica Harper is too intelligent to fade into a girlfriend part; with her sense of curiosity and wonder, she is a sort of relatable surrogate for the audience.

The other supporting actors are a riot. Among the best of them, Lainie Kazan, Selma Diamond, and Cameron Mitchell so thoroughly own their roles they seem to have been written to their strengths. Apparently that was the case with the rough-talking Diamond; Benjamin couldn’t imagine anyone but her as a studio secretary and it shows.

This is such an uplifting film and it comes by its laughs and tears honestly. The idea of a broken man redeeming himself could easily get too sentimental, but with a little slapstick and a lot of emotional intelligence, Benjamin and O’Toole get to the heart of things without becoming sappy. Truly an under seen classic.

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

Quote: Robert Bresson on Cinema

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Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.

-Robert Bresson

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