Streaming Diary: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans on Netflix

Unless you subscribe to their DVD plan, Netflix doesn’t offer a lot of classic films. However, when it comes to documentaries of interest to those who love the golden age of movies, it’s a different story. I’ve found several interesting flicks on the service, some of them even produced by Netflix. My favorites:

Quincy (2018)

Rashida Jones offers a loving, but honest portrait of her father in this intimate documentary about legendary composer, producer, musician and band leader Quincy Jones. With a beautifully arranged mix of archival and current footage, she explores his brilliance and flaws in equal measure, admirably giving proper attention to the women who put their lives on hold so that Jones could shine. Film fans will enjoy the brief, but interesting segment about the composer's film scores.

Faces Places (2017)

Influential French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda and the street artist JR are a charming pair on their essentially light-hearted journey through the French countryside. They travel in a customized van fitted with a special printer which makes oversized prints of the photos they take of people they meet on their travels. They plaster these pictures in public places, giving ordinary citizens a taste of fame and even more importantly, the feeling that they are worthy of attention. As interesting as the people they meet is the relationship between the two artists, who are divided by generations and emotional maturity, but share a deep compassion for and curiosity about humanity.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

When I saw this emotionally rich film about the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr for the first time on public television, I regretted not recording it, as I immediately wanted to watch it again. It explores both her Hollywood career and the passion for inventing that inspired her to create signal hopping technology, which would eventually be used to secure cell phone communication. It is a simultaneously thrilling and frustrating story, buoyed by Lamarr’s brilliance and wisdom, but ultimately tragic because she never fully got her due for what she accomplished during her lifetime.

Five Came Back (2017)

This three-part documentary is based on Mark Harris’ book of the same name about the films Hollywood directors John Huston, Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens made on the frontlines of World War II. Directors Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan talk about this diverse group of filmmakers, essentially the best of Hollywood at the time, and how they threw themselves into danger to document war. Several of the films the directors made are also available on the service, including: Nazi Concentration Camps (1945), Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), The Battle of Midway (1942), San Pietro (1945), and Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (1943).

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

I love the positive, loving tone of this tribute to actor, singer, and teen heartthrob Tab Hunter. The star has weathered a brutal industry with grace, an especially remarkable thing as he had the added burden of living as a homosexual when it could end a career. Hunter himself gets lots of screentime. He remains a mesmerizing presence.

Filmworker (2017)

Leon Vitali was once an actor with a thriving career which promised to ascend to great heights. Then he met Stanley Kubrick while working on Barry Lyndon (1975) and decided to give it all up to work for the director in any capacity he could. His enduring devotion, and the way he was in thrall to this demanding filmmaker, are the subject of this fascinating, if occasionally unsettling documentary. It can be hard to watch Vitali suffer for the art of another, putting stress on his relationships, health, and finances, because as a society, we are taught to aspire to great things for ourselves. However, the film taps into the passion that Vitali felt for his work, demonstrating how his efforts were instrumental to the vision Kubrick brought to the screen and how in the end, he thought it worth sacrificing his own spotlight.

Pre-Codes on DVD: Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934)

When Warner Archive announced that it would no longer be releasing the Forbidden Hollywood box sets, I was concerned, despite the company’s claims that it would still offer a steady stream of pre-code releases. While I still miss the sense of discovery in wading through those sets, I have been satisfied with the films from the period that have been offered since, including an interesting pair of new-to-disc flicks. I’d never even heard of Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934) before their recent DVD release, so I approached both cold, with varying results.

Passion Flower (1930) is a standard melodrama: all about the varying degrees of suffering its characters endure. It stars two Kays: Ms. Johnson as a wealthy girl who marries her chauffeur (Charles Bickford) and is disowned by her father, and Ms. Francis as her so-called friend who first offers financial help, but then decides she wants to help herself to her friend’s hubby. By then there are children in the mix, so her selfishness is especially cold-hearted.

This was one of the films where Kay Francis set the template for two key aspects of her persona: the dangerously sexy husband thief (see also A Notorious Affair [1930]) and the ever suffering glamour puss (Mandalay [1934]). Here she only imagines herself the victim though. Even among the pre-code stars, only Kay Francis could feel sorry for herself for stealing another woman’s husband.

Francis is essentially the reason to watch; Johnson and Bickford aren’t nearly as intriguing, at least partly because they don’t have much to work with. As the oldest son of the pair, pre-Rascals Dickie Moore is reliably adorable and keeps his parents in line with his tiny pout and seal eyes. Zasu Pitts is also a bright spot as a tender-hearted landlady. It isn’t a production of distinction, but everyone is playing reassuringly to type.

Hide-Out (1934) could have been a standard fish-out-of-water yarn, but its cast and the staging of the production give it life beyond its familiar plot. Robert Montgomery plays a womanizing New York gangster-lite party boy who gets himself in trouble with the law. He escapes to an isolated farmhouse, where he is quickly charmed by his hosts, the wholesome Miller family, and falls in love with their daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Director W.S. Van Dyke keeps the action light and brisk, transitioning confidently from the busy nightclub scenes in the first part of the film to the homier farm scenes to follow. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is enjoyable, with lots of songs and dancing girls bringing life to the city milieu and young Mickey Rooney taking on the role of entertainer on the farm as the youngest of the Miller clan.

There’s a great cast at play here and they are all at the top of their game. Montgomery, O’Sullivan and Rooney are especially lively—as are Elizabeth Patterson as Mama Miller and Edward Arnold as a tough, but jovial police detective. They all seem to be enjoying themselves together, as if the feeling of a happy set is translating to the screen. The laughs are a little more genuine than in a similar production and the relationship between O’Sullivan and Montgomery feels especially real as it develops from affection to love.

As I wondered where this surplus of cast camaraderie came from, it occurred to me that Montgomery might have had something to do with it. I thought about the way he always brought a little extra fire out of Norma Shearer in the romantic comedies they did, and how even playing an utterly evil character as he did in Night Must Fall (1937), he remained completely charming and infused the rest of the cast with his electricity. It’s something worthy of more thought: The Montgomery Effect. I’ve always thought he was underrated; now I’m thinking his appeal was also influential for his costars.

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.

Streaming Holiday Classics: Features and Shorts for Rent and Free, Other Recommendations

While I have many Christmas movies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, I wanted to expand the offerings at my fingertips this year. I compiled a list of flicks available to stream so that I would have choices for any mood at my fingertips. 

Many of these picks aren't explicitly holiday movies, but have especially inspiring Christmas scenes and fit the overall spirit of the season. I've come to like these kind of films the best, because they lightly touch on the season instead of overloading me with holiday sentiment.

As a gift for you all, I'm sharing what I found! Free options are bolded (some require a library card).Enjoy:

A Christmas Past (silent short film collection)
I'll definitely be checking out this Kino Lorber release which has several silent shorts that are new to me. Check out the playlist for titles.

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)

I like having holiday shorts available to watch for the occasional down moment. This is a cute one.

Auntie Mame (1958)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
This is a new addition to my holiday rotation. One of those movies that gets me in the spirit, though very little of it is about Christmas.

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
I love that this tender film about lonely people finding each other during the holidays is starting to get more attention. 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Cary Grant is an angel. Of course.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
So much to love, but I especially adore that Sydney Greenstreet is a good guy here.

The Great Rupert/A Christmas Wish (1950)
My only complaint about this film: not enough squirrel.

Holiday Affair (1949)
Internet Archive/YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Another charming film that has slowly expanded its audience over the years.

Holiday Affair (Lux Video Theater, 1955)
Internet Archive
I can't vouch for this television version as I haven't watched it yet, but I am curious.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Internet Archive
Always amuses me that a film with such dark themes is embraced as a cozy Christmas classic.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
So many films with holiday themes are about loneliness. This is one of the most tender.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
I always need a little noir for the holiday season.

Little Women (1933)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
It's only a moment in the film, but the generosity of spirit in the Christmas scene always moves me.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. That's enough to make it a holiday movie for me.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
There's a lot to love in this film, but I always watch because Natalie Wood is so darn charming.

Santa Claus (1898)
If not the first Santa Claus movie, it's definitely one of the first.

Santa Claus (1925)
Another early take on Kris Kringle.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
Any time of year, but especially this time of year.

Susan Slept Here (1954)
Another new addition to the holiday rotation. Watched it when Debbie Reynolds passed last year and realized how well it suited the season.

The Thin Man (1934)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
That Christmas morning scene where Powell is shooting balloons off the tree. We should all keep that sense of play in our lives.

The Yule Log (1966) 

There have been many variations on the television Yule log over the years, but this one is the first (pictured above). It made its debut on the New York channel WPIX in 1966 and was aired every year until 1989 and was then revived in 2001.

My Streaming Wish List/Other Recommended Titles:

Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Because the scene where they unwrap their presents for each other is such witchy fun.

Blast of Silence (1961), Great vintage New York City locations during the Christmas season. It's not a cheerful story, but might be cathartic for those who feel grumpy this time of year.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), A wonderful depiction of the yearning for love and connection, and how that intensifies during the holidays.

Lady on a Train (1945), The scene where Deanna Durbin sings Silent Night on the phone to her father is one of my favorite film holiday moments.

Remember the Night (1940), I love the humble joy of the country house Christmas here.

Podcast Roundup: 6 Picks for Classic Film Fans

I’ve got another great batch of podcasts for classic film fans this month, but before I share my choices, I want to say congratulations to Brian Sauer and Elric Kane, because their lovely podcast Pure Cinema is now the official podcast of the New Beverly Theater, which is reopening after being closed a year for remodeling. This is one of my favorite podcasts because these two are so knowledgeable, but they’re never stuffy about it, always putting the focus on sharing their joy of cinema with anyone. I have shared installments of their podcast here before, but really any episode is worth a listen. Just be ready to add lots of titles to your to-watch list.

Now on to my latest choices. Podcast titles link to the episode:

NPR: Fresh Air
Karina Longworth

November 13, 2018

While I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Karina Longworth’s popular podcast You Must Remember This, I haven’t included them in my round-ups, because I figure this lady needs no introduction to film fans. It’s been great to see the media coverage she has gotten for her new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. I especially like this interview with Terry Gross, where she talks about the women Hughes seduced, promoted, and stalked in Hollywood and her efforts to humanize them when they are so often written off as notches on the mogul’s bedpost.

Art Matters
How Alfred Hitchcock Created Artful Suspense with Joel Gunz

October 29, 2018
Episode 21

With host Ferren Gippin, guest Joel Gunz of the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog discusses Hitchcock’s love of art and how he incorporated it into his films. I enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation about an aspect of the director’s work that doesn’t usually get such in-depth examination.

Cinema Shame
Hammer Horror Shamedown, Dan Day, Jr.

October 29, 2018

Guest Dan Day, Jr. discusses six recommended Hammer horror films and the long history of the studio with host James Patrick. It’s a wide ranging conversation that covers about any aspect of Hammer you could imagine. I especially enjoyed learning about the early history of the studio.

Film Connection
Billy Wilder: Kiss Me Stupid

November 12, 2018

In the fourth installment of a multi-episode Billy Wilder arc, Steven Saunders discusses the unusual and problematic Kiss Me Stupid (1964) with film writer Jeremy Carr. As much as I enjoy listening to podcasts about my favorite films or finding new discoveries, I think my favorite episodes are about films that haven’t won me over like this one. This thorough discussion helped me to examine some of my own reservations about this unusual entry in Wilder’s filmography and helped me to understand a bit more why it is such an uneven work.

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 32
Pioneering Women Filmmakers, with Shelley Stamp,George Willeman of Library of Congress

Mike Gebert discusses Kino’s massive new 6-DVD collection Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and the preservation of movies by women filmmakers with curator and professor Shelley Stamp and George Willeman of the Library Congress. While Stamp initially hoped to craft a set of Lois Weber films, she enthusiastically switched gears to curate a set that encompassed a wider array of female filmmakers from the silent era. Stamp has a lot to share about the early days of female filmmaking, what has until been lost to history, and how she helped bring these underseen films to a more extensive audience.

The Movies That Made Me
Robert Forster

October 22, 2018

This conversation with Robert Forster is epic, essential. If you listen to one episode in this post, make it this one. Forster discusses his career, going into great detail about working with director John Huston on his film debut, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). He also does a dead-on impression of Huston. Watch out Bogdanovich, you’ve got some competition in the celebrity impersonation arena.

On DVD: A The Thirteenth Chair (1929/1937) Double Feature

I love the Warner Archive single title double feature DVDs because comparing two versions of the same story makes watching each film exponentially more fun. The latest release features the 1929 and 1937 productions of the drawing room mystery The Thirteenth Chair, which was adapted from a 1916 stage play.

The story of a group of supposed murder suspects who participate in a séance in order to reveal the true criminal is essentially the same, but approached in a dramatically different fashion in the two films. It’s remarkable the polish the talkies took on from 1929 to 1937. In less than a decade, the concept of how to make a movie evolved into an almost entirely different form.

Director Tod Browning’s version of The Thirteenth Chair (1929) was the second screen adaptation, there was a silent version produced by the remarkably-named Acme Pictures Corporation in 1919. In this recital of gasping, moaning, and projecting to the back row, you never for a moment forget the story’s stage roots. You are also constantly reminded that the characters are British, with constant proclamations of “By Jove!” and “Dear old chap!”

This production is most interesting for the early glimpse it offers of Bela Lugosi, one year before he would find immortality as the star of Browning’s Dracula (1930). Lugosi’s style is the most stagy of the ensemble, but it doesn’t matter, because his screen presence is enthralling. His is the most streamlined and least fussy performance, despite the fact that he always appears to be shouting to the old ladies in the balcony.

While the MGM studios gloss and more sophisticated understanding of sound filmmaking certainly helps to elevate the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair, there are added quirks that amplify the amusement. The more potent presence of Dame Mae Whitty as the medium also centers the film in a way Margaret Wycherly never achieves in the earlier production.

Whitty steals the film with her comic flair and self-assurance, but the unusual supporting cast also has a lot to offer. As the closest friend of the murdered man, Henry Daniell injects an intriguing air of camp and a homoerotic edge into his performance. The glamorous and slightly salty ladies of the cast are also a fascinating bunch. Madge Evans, Elissa Landi, and Heather Thatcher never rose to above-the-title stardom, but they always add zing to a film and here they rattle and rave against each other with entertaining unease. The men are less distinctive, though Lewis Stone never disappoints and is pleasantly charismatic as a police inspector.

It’s a fun double feature, and the 1937 version could stand on its own as great entertainment.

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

Book Review--The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women

The Female Gaze: Essential Movie Made By Women
Alicia Malone
Mango Publishing, 2018

With The Female Gaze: Essential Movie Made by Women, Alicia Malone’s follow-up to last year’s Backwards and In Heels, the film reporter, host, and writer continues her invaluable quest to promote the work of women in film. Her message is two-fold: she is diligent in promoting the varied and rich works of female filmmakers, but consistently reminds her audience that not nearly enough women are allowed the opportunities in film their male counterparts are afforded.

While Backwards and In Heels focused on the full array of women working behind-the-scenes in film, The Female Gaze spotlights the films they have directed. In a fascinating move, Malone does this by recruiting more female voices. Of the fifty movies discussed in the book, she has written several extensive essays herself, which are complemented by shorter essays contributed by working and aspiring female film critics. When it comes to elevating the voices of women, Malone is clearly serious about covering her bases.

The essays are uniformly satisfying, though a mixed bag. A few were heavier on praise than analysis, though all made the impact of each work clear. Among the most enjoyable pieces were those where two writers covered the same film, enriching the discussion with their varying perspectives. All told, these are some of the best critical voices out there, and some of the new voices included here are promising.

Malone’s own writing style is the kind that is often underrated. She makes it all look a lot easier than it is. Her essays balance the essentials of plot, analysis, and director biography with thoughtful placement of each work in cultural context. She has a knack for distilling complex ideas into prose with flow which doesn’t get weighed down by the multitude of facts necessary to properly examine each work.

The films covered range from the silent era to the present day and encompass some of the best of cinema. Taken all together, it is a remarkable journey. A wide world of female-led moviemaking has evolved from the first female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Consequences of Feminism (1906) to Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time (2018), for which she was the first black woman to have a budget of over $100 million. The variety in between makes it clear that a “woman’s picture” can be anything, from comedy to horror, from the experimental to the mainstream.

The Female Gaze is a fun read and an essential work in a world where the film industry is starting to head down the right track where female filmmakers are concerned, but still has a long way to go.

Many thanks to Mango Publishing for sending a copy of the book for review.

2018 Holiday Gift Guide for Classic Film Lovers

'Tis the season for printing out pics of things you like and leaving them around the house as not-so-subtle hints for your less classic film literate family members. Let me give you a hand with some of my favorite picks for movie fanatics:

Kate Gabrielle

Full disclosure: Kate is a longtime friend, but I was a fan of her charming art long before we met. She's got quite the following in the classic film community; at the TCM Classic Film Festival, people act a bit like they're encountering a celebrity when they meet her. This is for good reason; her punny classic film themed gifts, ornaments, and cards are a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of her movie-related pins. I always wear her Méliès A Trip to the Moon (1902) moon pin on my jacket.

Alejandro Mogollo Díez

Alejandro is another artist beloved by classic film fans. His colorful portraits of classic film stars are gorgeous and he has a knack for capturing the spirit of his subjects, giving them a little more meaning than your typical fan art. I have lost track of how many shirts, stickers, and bags I have bought from his RedBubble shop. He's also got a shop on Threadless where, among other things, he sells slip-on sneakers with his art (praying he puts Elizabeth Taylor on a pair of those sneaks some day).

Buying gifts from tribute museum gift shops is a great way to express your classic film love and support the work of these organizations. I am newly in love with the Jimmy Stewart Museum, located in the actor's hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, which also produces an entertaining podcast. Their silver bell ornament with Zuzu's famous line from It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is especially sweet.

The Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas also has a lot of fun items. My favorite: the "morning oil can" travel mug.

There's also a lot of great DVD/Blu-ray releases that came out this year. Some highlights:

Yet another impeccably-packaged collection of Georges Méliès films from Flicker Alley.

An astonishing array of films in Kino Lorber's latest collection, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.

So good that Warner Archive is struggling to keep it in stock: the essential Bogart and Bacall Blu-ray Collection.

I also love the true independents entering the DVD/Blu-ray market like Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently who crowfunded her 2018 DVD release of Kidnapped (1917).

And silent film accompanist and score composer Ben Model's DVD Found at "Mostly Lost": Volume 2, which is a collection of films from the Library of Congress' vaults that were identified during the Mostly Lost conferences and released via his own label, Undercrank Productions.

Consider these suggestions a starting point. There's so much more out there for classic film fans, from books and memorabilia to classic film music and vintage-inspired clothing. Find out what makes the movie lover in your life tick and you are sure to find something they adore!

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