Warner Archive Blu-ray: Robert Morse and a Crazy Cast of Cameos in The Loved One (1965)

The Loved One takes a look at the superficial rot in society and gleefully flashes a pair of fangs. This satire of Hollywood, the funeral industry and grand gestures hiding devious acts jabs at corruption and greed. It's full of cameos, some performed by actors who for the most part have glossy, uncomplicated personas, and all seem to relish getting a chance to show a little edge. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this is an unusual, rebellious film.

Robert Morse stars as Dennis Barlow, a young, plagiarist poet who travels from the UK to Hollywood and takes up residence with his Uncle Francis (John Gielgud). When his elderly relative hangs himself after losing his longtime job at a move studio, the leader of the local British colony (Robert Morley) insists that their compatriot have a grand funeral.

Barlow goes to the luxurious Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary, where movie star glamorous ladies in veils and low-cut dresses wear elegant smiles, but attend to their customers with vicious efficiency. They quietly turn away Jews and gently shame acceptable applicants into choosing the most luxurious and expensive accommodations for their loved ones.

Obsessed with the tragically naïve cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), Dennis begins to spend a lot of time at Whispering Glades, where he meets the corrupt owner, the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) and the unhinged, but professional head embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), who also lusts after Aimée, imagining her as an addition to his bizarre life with his gluttonous bedridden mother.

Left with little inheritance, Dennis goes to work at the local pet cemetery, owned by Reverend Glenworthy's twin brother Henry (Winters), where he also meets the genius teen rocket builder Gunther Fry (a remarkable early performance by 23-year-old Paul Williams). While Joyboy and Dennis pressure Aimée for marriage, the Reverend plots to improve his profits by any means necessary. It is not a healthy atmosphere for anyone with a hint of morals.

The Loved One seems to have irritated many upon its release. Source novel author Evelyn Waugh didn't want to be associated with the film, but was days from his death upon its release. Several offended studio executives marched out of an early screening, which delighted director Tony Richardson who seems to have felt the arrow hit the right spot. While the sensual and cynical elements of this dark comedy do not have the same power to offend that they did upon the film's release, it is easy to see how the executive types could have been annoyed and the moral types clutching their pearls. You could apply the monsters here to any time; the message is evergreen.

Perhaps it is the actors who came out best here, simply because they seem to be enjoying their roles so much. In the leads Morse, Comer and Winters commit in a way that is palpable, you feel their belief in their characters. It was also fun to see the way Liberace, Tab Hunter and Milton Berle snagged the opportunity to play against type in a trio of bitter cameos. Other standout bit roles include Lionel Stander, Roddy McDowell and Barbara Nichols, all thoroughly understanding the spirit of the project. And then there is Steiger, clearly having the time of his life in a creepy, kooky and outrageous performance that was reportedly his favorite.

For a film about corruption, deception and losing faith, The Loved One is a lot of fun. Perverse in a way the times call for.

The picture looks amazing, mostly due to the work of producer and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, though the disc quality is also good.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and the featurette Trying to Offend Everyone, which features interesting interviews with Comer, Morse and Williams. I always like to hear Williams speak in particular; he's got a great sense of humor.

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

Flicker Alley--7 Great Flicks From Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology

In the weeks since I participated in the Flicker Alley giveaway for the three disc DVD/Blu-ray set Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology, I've spent a lot of time watching and rewatching the films in this set. Considering there are twenty-five varied entries here, from full-length films and shorts to one legendary outburst from a Dorothy Arzner flick, it's impressive to me how many of them I appreciate not just objectively, but on a personal level.

The overall message here: women do not have a single unifying characteristic as filmmakers except their sex. Their contributions to cinema have been diverse, sometimes pioneering and often worthy of celebration. They created magic in the early years of the industry and they should have been able to do so in larger numbers in the years to follow. Hopefully that will eventually be corrected in our current industry, though it cannot happen fast enough. In the meantime, there are these films to remind us of the great talents in our cinematic past.

There's a lot to unpack in this set, so I thought I'd share some of the titles that stood out for me in this amazing anthology:

Une Histoire Roulante (1906), Alice Guy-Blaché

This short consists of about two minutes of a man inside a barrel, rolling out of control over people, a high railway bridge and anything else unfortunate enough to be in his path. It feels like the birth of screen slapstick.

Suspense (1913), Lois Weber

If Guy-Blaché can be given credit for bringing physical comedy to the screen, Weber should get her laurels for creating a cinematic language for suspense films. This tensely-paced short about a young mother who is terrorized by a home-invading tramp is still terrifying over one hundred years after its debut.

La Souriante Mme. Beaudet (1922), Germaine Dulac

Combining the brutal slap of reality with a dream world of fevered speculation, this tale of a woman who despises her crude, controlling husband is both harsh and beautiful. Presenting feminist before there was a word for it, Dulac bravely presents a vision of female defiance.

The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927), Olga Preobrazhenskaia

A devastating film of heartbreaking labor, physical abuse, loyalty and lack thereof, among a group of rural women. This Soviet drama is also visually beautiful, with magically composed location photography and an intimate eye on the customs and social life of these hard living people.

The Stolen Heart (1934), Lotte Reiniger

Reiniger specialized in silhouette animation, using stop motion and cut-outs to give life to fairy tales, fables and operas. I've always been amazed how much emotion she can illicit from these cut outs, using the simplest motion and designs. Here a village is terrorized by a sort of demon who steals their musical instruments. The instruments have their own ideas though and do not accept captivity away from their owners.

A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff

Set to Modest Mussorgsky's menacing titular composition, this animated short was made using pinscreen animation. This method, for which Parker became celebrated, uses a screen in which movable pins are inserted to make different patterns. The designs, and the way they are filmed to capture different shadow effects, are unlike any other form of film animation. Here the effect is creepy and fantastical, fitting perfectly with the score.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Maya Deren

In her most famous work, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren creates a work of beauty and haunting uncertainty. She stars in this exploration of the power of a definitive moment and how it can expand into an obsession.

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

Warner Archive Blu-ray: James Garner and Lee Remick in The Wheeler Dealers (1963)

Movie sexism in the sixties is often a difficult terrain to travel, no matter how much the filmmakers think they have empowered their female lead, there is inevitably a man behind any happy ending. I found much of this nature cringe about in The Wheeler Dealers, but James Garner and Lee Remick are ridiculously sexy in the lead roles and they are supported by an amusing supporting cast. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this good-looking, cheerful film is entertaining despite itself.

Remick is Molly Thatcher, a stock analyst who her boss (Jim Backus) would like to unload, but only if he can't be blamed for a sexist firing. He saddles her with selling stock at a firm he deems to be worthless, anticipating her failure. He is foiled by wealthy client Henry Tyroon who becomes infatuated with Molly and decides to help her find the value in this supposedly dying company.

Molly appreciates the help, but resists Henry, and her strong attraction to this charming supposed Texan. Turned off by the way he feels the need to control, or even buy, everything she struggles to focus on her career. She is also constantly diverted by his folksy millionaire friends, played with corny gusto by Chill Wills, Phil Harris and Charles Watts who seem harmless, but can get serious when it comes to meddling. In a pair of sly supporting roles Louis Nye and John Astin add their own complications.

There's plenty here that is pleasant to see and hear: novel situations, beautiful costumes, great performances, good zingers. Somehow not much of it sticks though. It isn't exactly shallow or lacking substance; there are some decent jabs at sexism (though it still riles me that Ms. Remick wasn't given the power to save herself), business and the absurdities of rampant capitalism. Despite the appeal of Remick and Garner they have only so-so chemistry; would this have been more memorable with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the leads? Was there ever enough at stake here to create the proper tension? Garner in his prime is enough of a draw for me, but there's something a bit too by-the-numbers about this high quality, but not quite distinctive flick.

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

Review--Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Filmmaker Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) drifts through the past with bittersweet grace. To attempt to describe it as a documentary is to limit the extent of its creativity. It does document the ebb and flow of life in a Yukon Territory gold rush town, but with a paint brush instead of a pencil.

The film tells two parallel stories: that of the busy and dramatically fluid history of Dawson City and of the cache of hundreds nitrate films discovered beneath the town's hockey rink. Battered excerpts from these silent discoveries, many of them thought long lost, are juxtaposed with the images of the town as it grew, thrived and faded through the years.

Dawson City is essentially a silent film, which is fitting given the vintage of the reclaimed nitrate. With Alex Somers' low-key, elegiac score as background, film clips and moving shots of photos from the town's past are allowed to speak for themselves, with text added as necessary to fill in the details. The collage of images fill in pieces of the story at a languid pace, matching the times it describes.

The town was home to many famous faces over the years, including some who would find fame in Hollywood. Theater owner Sid Grauman was a newsboy there and Marjorie Rambeaux, William Desmond and writer Wilson Mizner all had their impact on Dawson as well. There's even a photo of Charlie Chaplin, there to do location filming for The Gold Rush (1925).

Taking in the whole story of the Dawson film discovery evokes simultaneous feelings of delight and loss. The town was the end of the road for hundreds of silent films during the early days of the industry. It was expensive to ship prints and studios didn't want the battered reels once they had completed their run.

So the films were stored, until they took up too much space. Then hundreds of them were thrown in the river, while another massive pile was burned. Miraculously, over 500 more reels were saved when they were used to fill in the town swimming pool, so that putting a temporary top over it would no longer be necessary for hockey season.

There the films were preserved for decades, and many of the townspeople knew they were there, unaware of their value. Sometimes bits of nitrate would poke out of the ice and kids would set them on fire for fun. The importance of what lay under the ice was not fully understood until they were discovered by an outside party who felt such a stash deserved a better fate.

I haven't seen Morrison's 2002 tribute to the beauty of decomposing film, Decasia, but I hear fans of that film will appreciate a similar style here. This is a must see for anyone interested in film restoration and recovery. It is a mesmerizing, mysterious and deliberate work.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Killer Tree Rampage in From Hell it Came (1957)

He was buried with seeds and came back as a tree monster!

How to describe From Hell it Came (1957)? It stars an angry, creakily mobile tree. The mood: a little Wizard of Oz (1939), a lot of Robot Monster (1953) and a hint of zombie and Godzilla radiation action. That's a start, but it's better for the sanity if you don't try too hard to analyze a movie about a demonic tree. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, reportedly due to huge customer demand.

In the opening scene, tribal prince Kimo (Gregg Palmer) is executed by order of his tribal chief on a South Seas island, supposedly because he has killed a tribesman with modern medicine. In fact the chief has poisoned the man to discredit the research scientists on the island attending to the ill so that he can maintain his power. Forsaken by his wife and the tribespeople as well, before he is stabbed in the heart Kimo swears he will come back from the depths of hell to have his revenge.

While there's plenty of racism and half-hearted attempts at hula dancing in this sequence, it would be a lot more offensive if the chief didn't talk like a dude hanging around a street corner in Brooklyn. It plays like a Z-grade noir where everyone picked up the wrong costume and stumbled onto the island set.

Kimo is buried, and a new drama unfolds elsewhere on the island. Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) arrives to join the research scientists, who have been studying the effects of radioactive fallout blown to the island from a atomic explosion in a small lab. There she is immediately pawed by old acquaintance Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews), who is using the sexual harassment ploy to break down her resistance to marrying him. The good doctor is missing an opportunity in Mrs. Mae Kilgore (Linda Watkins), widow of the trading post operator, and cheerfully willing to submit to an examination.

While on a walk, Terry and Bill come upon Kimo's grave, and notice a tree with an angry face growing out of it. With no thought as to whether tampering with this odd growth is a good idea, the scientists bring the tree to the lab, where they find it has a beating heart and is oozing green goo from a knife wound. Then, in their absence, the radioactive timber comes to life and trashes the lab before escaping. Unfortunately we don't get to witness this destruction.

A friendly native tells the scientists that this isn't the first time a tree haunted with an angry spirit has gone on a violent rampage. They even have a name for it: Tobanga. While they discuss the then clearly questionable practice of burying bodies with seeds, Tobanga goes on a murderous rampage, snatching up his unfaithful wife and killing the chief.

Once you actually see the tree in action, it becomes clear why we didn't get to see it destroy the lab; it can barely move its split trunk "legs" and doesn't appear able to raise its tree branch "arms" either. In fact, much like in Robot Monster, this creature is so clumsy, slow and lacking in flexibility that it is baffling that anyone could be killed by it. To escape it, all you need to do is walk away, slowly. But these are the people continuing to plant seeds with bodies, even after all the attacks and uprooting angry-looking trees without hesitation. Walking away is plausibly a challenge for the residents of this island.

When Tobanga dumps his wife in quicksand, she not only has failed to walk away, but once in the muck she seems to be doing her best to sink under the surface. With hardly a struggle, she slowly slides into the sludge, until she sticks a bit and tucks her arm in so that she'll go all the way under.

The tree itself is a work of 'B' movie brilliance: expressionless, almost completely inflexible, but fascinating because never before, or likely never again, has there been a screen monster quite like this one. It is one of the most bizarre of the sci-fi monsters and watching it waddle around gives this stinker of a movie much of its entertainment value. Add to this a cast of amusingly inept dimwits and a leading lady who screams more like an angry monkey than a human being, and you might not have a classic, but a memorable experience nevertheless.

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

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) at the Triple Door

Last night at the Triple Door I enjoyed my final archival screening of the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring John Barrymore and accompanied by the Austin, Texas-based combo The Invincible Czars.

The Barrymore films I tend to watch are from his ravaged years in the thirties, where he was still great, but not at his best, so whenever I get the opportunity to see him in his Don Juan, dashing prime, I often find myself surprised by how alive he was only a decade before. As Jekyll and Hyde he is lively and grotesque, full of mischievous energy and dangerous appetites. Like Orson Welles, you can tell how much he delights in transforming himself physically, glorying in his false nose, prosthetic fingers and horrifying skull dome, all things which could look ridiculous on a less adept performer.

This adaptation of the classic novel is not as explicitly racy as the pre-code take with Fredric March, but Barrymore makes his lascivious intentions quite clear. In some respect his Hyde's horrific behavior is not so far removed from that of Jekyll in his natural state; both are obsessed with their needs and oblivious to the damage they cause in pursuing them. It's just that one lays claim to morals and knows how to behave in high society.

It's an intense, efficiently paced film with a gut-churning forward momentum. Danger always seems imminent, giving you the feeling of trying to step on the brakes in order to relieve the unease. I think it is one of Barrymore's finest performances, because he was given the freedom to explore the extremes of these dual personalities and embrace the ugliness the actor always seemed to see within himself.

I've always believed that a silent movie score and those who perform it should not draw attention away from the film. For the most part I still feel like the music should be so intertwined with the film that you essentially forget that the musician(s) are there. However, I found myself feeling more flexible on the matter after watching this performance.

The Invincible Czars have created an unpredictable, engaging score and I enjoyed the spectacle of their performance as much as I appreciated the film. I was able to take in both, side-by-side, without feeling like I'd sacrificed much of the cinematic experience. Instead of accompaniment, it almost felt like an enhancement. I think in many cases, approaching music this way can be disrespectful to the film, but with the right title, tone and musicians, I now see how it can work.

Part of the appeal of the score was that it smoothly melded nostalgia with more modern sounds. Drifting, moody themes from composers like Satie and Debussy were woven into the band's own compositions, which focused on capturing the feel of the film in a visceral way. Manic laughter, hissing and repetitive vocalizing helped to draw out the horror on the screen.

It was an interesting experience, and a concept that could only succeed with a careful combination of elements, but it did here.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Ruan Lingyu Enchants in Love and Duty (1931)

Love and Duty (1931) is heartwrenching and it is long, so there were both sniffles and snores in the packed SIFF Uptown theater last night. The Chinese film, directed by the celebrated Wancang Bu was a hit in China upon its release, but was long thought to be lost, until a print was found in Uruguay. Now it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to a 2014 restoration. While I knew all this going into the film, I was most excited about finally getting a chance to see the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, who has been called the "Chinese Greta Garbo." I was so mesmerized by her in the trailer for the film that I thought it would be amazing to see the entire production.

Of course, Ruan is not like Garbo. You don't become a huge star by being like anyone else. On the big screen though, she has the same effect as the Swedish Sphinx. Her presence inspires a similar stunned feeling as if you are being held completely captive by her. She's got this smile that makes you feel goofy with affection and a way of making you love her even when she is cruel. Ruan brings you into her orbit.

The actress ages from her teen years to advanced middle age in Love and Duty, and you never feel a hint of artifice. None of those uncomfortably glamorous "teenagers" like you might see in the early scenes of a classic Hollywood film. In the beginning she captures the essence of youth, a mix of entitlement and high spirits. Then, she telegraphs the changes of marriage and motherhood with only a simple costume and hairstyle adjustment to aid her. She is hardened and disappointed in her arranged marriage, yet giddily in love with her children. The most stunning transformation she makes is to her later years, where even terrible, and terribly unnecessary tooth blacking doesn't undermine the stunning completeness of her transformation. When people who knew her in her youth don't recognize her, you believe it.

SIFF board member Richie Meyer introduced the film. He said that it was made at the height of the classic period of Shanghai period. That quality was evident, from the settings and costumes to the skill of the director and performers. It is a melodramatic story, meant to wrench emotion from its audience, but it is so well made, and its stars are so engaging, that you don't mind being manipulated.

After his comments, Meyer announced that the 95-year-old Chinese actress Qin Yi was in attendance. She was married to Ruan's charming co-star Yan Jin from 1947 until his death in 1983. Yi was also at the festival to promote The Beautiful Kokonor Lake, a film which she wrote, produced and starred in. That fact does not seem so surprising when you get a look at Yi, who definitely has no interest in acting her age. Aided by a translator, she shared memories of her husband and the industry, at one point looking at the audience and saying, "thank you for not forgetting." It was such an honor to see her.
Qin Yi and Jin Yan in 1947
While Love and Duty can drag, I never lost my interest. There are a lot of familiar beats to the plot, and you know the heroine will pay for her sins, but the uniformly fascinating cast keeps you engaged. Yan and Ruan star as lovers who meet as students, and are separated by her arranged marriage, but who cannot resist each other. Ruan leaves her family to pursue true love and from then on is constantly punished for it. That said, there are moments of transcendent joy in her life, moments she wouldn't have within her marriage, which leave you wondering if the suffering was worth it all.

The scenes of Yan and Ruan enjoying their blossoming romance are the best in the film. This isn't a hot and heavy affair, these two adore each other. Their chemistry reminded me of Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in Love Affair (1939) and their similarly scandalous romance. You want so much to see them thrive, despite the fact that they cause so much pain. It isn't as if the society they live in is full of innocents.

Fresh from the San Francisco Film Festival, Donald Sosin was on hand to provide keyboard accompaniment to the film. I am a huge fan of Mr. Sosin, and felt that this was a particularly great performance because he was able to so subtly match the mood of the film. It has been interesting to see him ripen as an artist in his appearances at SIFF over the past few years.

On an interesting side note, in a few scenes I was surprised to see Ruan wearing earrings that appeared to have swastikas on them. I figured there had to be another meaning to the symbol than that for which it is notorious. What I hadn't noticed was that the symbol was turned in a different direction than the Nazi version, which co-opted the original Sanskrit symbol. Apparently it is used on maps to mark Buddhist temples, which has caused enough distress for foreigners that some have suggested discontinuing its use. I was not able to find a specific meaning for the symbol in the Buddhist religion; it seems that mystery is intentional.

This film is one of several that Richie Meyer, an expert in Chinese cinema, has brought to SIFF. He also wrote an interesting book about the brief life of Ruan Lingyu, which was what piqued my interest in seeing the actress on screen.

You can learn more about the book here.

Here are my reviews of other Chinese films presented at SIFF:

The Big Road (1935)

Cave of the Spider Women (1927)

The Song of the Fisherman (1934)

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford Charm in The Rounders (1965)

Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda star as a pair of bronco riders who have gone soft in the brains, but still have hopes of making their fortune in the modern Western, The Rounders (1965), now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Ford and Fonda are Ben Jones and Howdy Lewis. They make their living breaking wild horses, often for Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills), who seems to be in the habit of talking the pair into things they know better than to do. Despite their attempts to outwit him, they appear to also find themselves frequently in debt to their employer.

Love tricks Ben and Howdy into accepting an especially wild steed, which they can't sell, and so end up putting in competition at a rodeo. At first it seems the two have finally found a way to make more than a few dollars a head, but life continues to be more complex than they can fathom.

The stars play their own neat trick of making you think they've got a great script to work with. Ford and Fonda were seasoned performers at this point in their careers. They were settled in their bones and seemingly at ease with any nugget of dialogue. So their banter is easy and amusing, and you would maybe conclude clever, but it's really these two overcoming a lot of lackluster chatter with the shine of their personalities.

Stunning locations, most of them in Arizona's Coconino National Forest do much to enhance that star power. With bright blue sky and rock formations so vivid they look manufactured, there's no getting used to this magnificent setting. I often got distracted from the action because I was gazing at the scenery.

This film isn't much of a place for the ladies. As a pair of shallow strippers the cowboys meet, Sue Ane Langdon and Hope Holiday are no more than empty-headed punchlines. As a pair of farm girls Kathleen Freeman and Joan Freeman seem to exist only to fawn over the much older Fonda and Ford.

With cutesie music straining to cue laughs and long scenes that flat line on talk about moonshine, this flick is not anyone's best moment. It is ultimately entertaining because of the easygoing charm of its stars and that gorgeous scenery.

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

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Pavlova, Lois Weber and The Epic The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)

I get chills thinking about the way time plays with our perception. This was very much on my mind while viewing The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which I saw this morning at SIFF Uptown Theater for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival. 

Here is a story set in the 1600s, filmed over a century ago, now playing for a theater full of people with cell phones in their pockets. We were watching a tale of rebellion on a day when millions of people marched in protest against the government of the United States. Part of the fun of watching the archival films at this festival is wondering how a film that moves you from a distance of decades was received upon its release; that was very much on my mind today with current events deeply affecting my experience.

The Dumb Girl of Portici was director Lois Weber's most magnificent epic, the first film of its kind directed by a woman and the celebrated dancer Anna Pavlova's one moment of screen immortality. Based on a French opera, it tells a lovelorn story against the somewhat reality-based backdrop of Italian peasants fighting Spanish rule. Pavlova is Fenella, a mute resident of a fishermens' village in Naples, who is seduced and abandoned by the son of the Viceroy of Naples before he marries a Spanish princess. This drama is overwhelmed by the anger of the villagers at their oppression as they riot and attempt to defeat the Spaniards.

It is certainly amusing to watch a silent film in which the lead character is mute. Even the action as presented doesn't distinguish Fenella much from the rest of the villagers. Whatever the format or role, it isn't likely that Pavlova would have done well with dialogue anyway. Here she doesn't act so much as dance her role. She is able to communicate perfectly with movement.

While Pavlova was not a film actress, her stage experience made her grand enough to avoid being overwhelmed by a massive, elaborate production. This is a film to see on as large a screen as possible, so that you can see the fanatical detail of the costumes and the sets. 

Weber makes full use of her talents for staging action, filming several scenes of rioting that should be a chaotic mess, but instead forge forward with great dramatic tension. In the midst of it all, Pavlova demands your attention, but not because she is meant to be a movie star; it's just that you know she can't be ignored.

It seemed to be a mesmerizing experience for the completely silent audience. Looking so far into the past can have that effect on you.

Dumb Girl had the kind of scratches and wear to be expected of a film of this age, but was uniformly watchable, with decent reproduction of the tinting. It was provided courtesy of Milestone Films, which will be releasing this film and Weber's Shoes on DVD/Blu-ray later this year.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

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

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s
Charles Taylor
Bloomsbury, 2017

From the moment I heard of it, I looked forward to reading Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s. I both love and abhor the gritty, bold and honest cinema of this decade. So far it is the only truly adult era in the history of American cinema (though the pre-codes often came close) and for that reason the films produced then have a unique elation, grime and forthrightness that makes them endlessly intriguing. In a new book, Charles Taylor writes about several of the lesser known or underappreciated movies of the period, while lamenting the loss of the creatively adventurous mid-level budget film and the communal experience of seeing memorable films in theaters.

Though dedicated film fans will recognize several of the cult classics in this book: like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), even the most devoted seventies aficionado may find a few surprises. While I enjoyed reading Taylor's analysis of the films with which I was familiar, it was a special thrill to learn about titles like Winter Kills (1979) and Cisco Pike (1972), which sound intriguing, and are full of celebrated actors, but somehow never made it across my radar.

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.

Taylor believes that many of these 'B' flicks have captured some of the best of cinema. For example, while Pam Grier never reached the cinematic heights that she should have, he acknowledges that she did elevate exploitation programmers like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) with the majestic force of her personality. He argues that her charisma and free-wheeling acting chops are more compelling that the carefully calibrated machine work of the likes of Meryl Streep.

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.

These films become much more than drive-in fodder when you realize how they forced audiences to recognize the complications of life and the irrationality of human behavior. Taylor finds the beauty and horror in that messiness and ultimately mourns the loss of the mirror they held up to an audience, and how we are now more often scattered in private homes in front of television screens instead of gathered in a theater, discovering cinema together.

I was reluctant to finish this thoughtful analysis; it was such a pleasure to read. It draws on art, music and society to not necessarily give the films more meaning, but to show how they were born. It is a beautifully-crafted, loving, angry and perceptive collection of film criticism.

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

Warner Archive Blu-ray: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor in 36 Hours (1964)

36 Hours is an unusual exploration of World War II era deception and intrigue, examining the vulnerability of its victims and the ruthlessness of those in power. It is a tense thriller, but with a substantial emotional core. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

James Garner is typically reassuring as Major Jefferson Pike, an enlisted American in 1944 who is on his way to share classified information about the Normandy landings when he is drugged and kidnapped by Nazis. Groomed to look like he is years older, when he awakens Pike is told he is in a US Army hospital in Germany, it is 1950 and that he has suffered amnesia. It is all a lie though; the setting has been faked as a ruse to get him to share intelligence.

As Anna Hedler, a multi-lingual concentration camp survivor who has been recruited to pose as his nurse, Eva Marie Saint goes along with the deception in order to ensure her own safety, but her conscience troubles her. She is kind at heart. It is war that has shaken her moral grounding.

Rod Taylor co-stars as Major Walter Gerber, the mastermind behind the project, and perhaps the most confusing movie Nazi ever. He's soft-spoken, friendly and a gentleman to Hedler. The American accent he has adopted for his work makes him seem like an ally. It can just about sneak past you that this hunky Major is capable of great evil.

Not only is Gerber fighting against the allies, his whole business is deception. He doesn't hesitate to rob a man of his place in time or worry about what such confusion can do to his sanity. While he says he wishes to find a safe place for Anna after her assignment, in the meantime he seems to have no problem forcing her to lie to suit his purposes. Even that accent is devious, telegraphing safety while he fishes for details that could lead to the death of thousands.

In spite of all this, Taylor practically comes off as a hero in the film. He charms his way into that role, seeming to imply that he was simply born into the wrong side of history. Possibly much of this is due to the actor's appeal as a performer; would he have come off as well if he looked like Peter Lorre?

It's an interesting film, because while it works as a straight thriller, so much of it is about the vulnerability of the good in the face of evil. Gerber and Hedler both do highly questionable things, in varying levels of seriousness, but they are portrayed as essentially decent. You are meant to forgive them.

Saint is particularly touching as a woman who has been assaulted so frequently that she has become numb. She knows that she does not want to absorb the evil of her tormentors, but the vile acts she has endured have forced her to focus inward, making survival a priority above all else. Knowing she can never go back to the way she was, she struggles to reclaim the good within her.

The battle of wits between Taylor and Garner is absorbing, though the horror of what it all means is never far below the surface. Both men are engulfed by a system run by vicious self interest, and it appears to repulse them, but they never hesitate to do their duty. They seem to have so much common ground, though the definition of victory varies wildly for each of them.

This is an intriguing film, deserving a of higher profile.

The disc image is good. The only special feature is 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.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Life Really is a Cabaret at the Egyptian Theater

Last night at the SIFF Egyptian Theater, I was presented with a dizzying mix of glamour, glitter, bare buns and sobering reality.The 43rd Seattle International Film Festival presented a screening of Cabaret (1972) with a real cabaret before it, just like those live shows they used to have before movies in the early days. Headliner Robbie Turner led a lively cast of characters through a revue that had me laughing so hard I cried.

The evening began with a cocktail hour, where film goers had the opportunity to mingle and have their photo taken with Robbie and the evening's MC Mackenzie Miller. When I saw how gorgeous they were, I had to get a pic:

Robbie, KC and Mackenzie

I mentioned that I felt underdressed in the face area and Robbie said that I was fine and they were the clowns. I honestly replied that I love that, but later I wished I'd told him how important the glamour and entertainment they offered was to lifting our spirits. The act is fun, but their impact is serious business.

It really was a fun act too. Miller pranced on the stage in a glittering jacket and G-string to start the proceedings. Then came Turner, a dead ringer for Ms. Minnelli in his Liza drag. The adorable Abbey Roads pranced through a high-energy number and astoundingly leggy Visage "Legs" Larue made a few appearances, but for the most part this was Turner's showcase.

Several audience members were dragged on stage to participate in the act and they were all so game and amusing themselves that you had to wonder if they were plants. Of course, they seemed a little too embarrassed at first for that to be the case. I don't think I'd ever seen such a game group of people thrust into the spotlight.

Turner really captured the snap and bubbly energy of Liza, while mostly discarding the star's self-deprecating humor. It was great to see a full-on fierce Minnelli. 

I think the audience was primed to more fully enjoy the film, though it has a great deal of sobering reality mixed in with its glittering delights. Based on a pair of novellas by Christopher Isherwood, that are usually published together as The Berlin Stories, and a Broadway musical, director Bob Fosse takes this tale of hedonistic life in a city starting to kneel to the Nazis in a bitter, raunchy direction.

Cabaret has a gorgeous, affecting cast of characters, including model-turned-actress Marisa Berenson and the handsome Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper and Michael York. However, this show belongs to Liza and her master of ceremonies Joel Grey. The film captures the best of what these stars of the stage had to offer.

As the MC of a 1930s Berlin nightclub show, and a sort of one man Greek chorus of the Nazi terror to come, Grey is all edges and knowing grins. His decadence is candy coating for the fear and frustration at his core. He knows the good times are ending and he is going to dance all the way to hell with a face-stretching grin forced onto his face.

It is Liza that really grips you though. When she hits the stage she is fully in the moment, sacrificing everything she has to her performance. Watching her perform always makes me think of a passage in Sam Wasson's Fosse biography where she is leaping around telling the choreographer how much she loves show business. You can sense that when she's on the stage. Performing gives her life and that is intoxicating.

Much like her mother Judy Garland, Minnelli can be a goddess on the stage one moment and reveal her deepest hurts the next. She has her mother's gift for showing vulnerability, whether by speaking a little bit too loudly at a dinner party where she feels out of place or by speaking simple truths, with her huge eyes rimmed in tears, little droplets attaching themselves to those long, false eyelashes.

Liza's is a performance for the big screen. Though I had watched Cabaret at home several times, last night was the first time I truly saw it and appreciated the grand visuals and performances juxtaposed with horror and heartbreak.  

I am glad SIFF is dedicated to promoting great films through its archival offerings. This screening was evidence of why that attention to our cinematic heritage is so important: for the lessons that always need to be relearned, the beauty of the films that have come before and the charisma of the greatest stars.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Those Redheads From Seattle (1953) Come Home, In 3D!

I had the opportunity to see Those Redheads from Seattle at the TCM Film Festival this year, but it is so much more appropriate that I saw it for the first time in Seattle, the city where it premiered at the Paramount Theater in 1953. Last night Robert Furmanek, archivist and founder of the 3D Film Archive was on hand at the SIFF Uptown Theater to introduce this 3D Technicolor musical extravaganza for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival and held a brief Q&A after the film.

Furmanek began by asking how many redheads were in the audience, and amusingly enough it looked like there were a good dozen in attendance. He provided a useful background on the film and a brief history of 3D. Though Redheads was the first 3D musical to be released, most markets didn't present the film in the format. Furmanek discussed some of the challenges of projecting three dimensional cinema, from lack of the proper filters to headache-inducing out-of-sync visuals. He also showed the audience an original projector filter and a pair of "Original Magic Viewers" from 1953, in addition to sharing a brief clip showing restoration comparisons (these are always incredible to see).

Despite the fact that its plot is driven by death, deception and violence, Redheads is an essentially lighthearted film. It has all sorts of ridiculous contradictions (a wife who adores her husband, but has the shortest grieving period ever when he dies, a location that requires ten days of sled travel to access at the beginning of the film, though a character leaves the same place from a boat at the edge of town at the end). You just have to sit back and enjoy the silliness of it all, and it is enjoyable.

There is a redhead count of four in the film: Agnes Moorehead as the matriarch of the Edmonds clan; Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and Cynthia Strother as sisters. The blonde Kay Strother is the often overlooked little sister and with sister Cynthia starred as The Bell Sisters (they a popular singing duo making their screen debut). This jumble of movie stars (Moorehead, Fleming) and vocalists (Brewer, Bells) works pretty well. They keep it lively with dancing, singing and wisecracks and don't let you think too much about the tragedy of their situation.

Gene Barry handles the male lead originally meant for John Payne. You can see what the latter actor could have done to add intensity to the role, but Barry has sufficient charisma to make it work. Singing star Gene Mitchell doesn't have quite the same impact. As good as he is when he sings, his Sinatra-style laidback persona doesn't pop on the screen. He registers as a bit of a cinematic void, though his relaxed presence has a certain appeal; he doesn't seem to be trying too hard to win anyone over.

The film's five songs were written by a variety of reliable tunesmiths, including Jay Livingston, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Teresa Brewer's rendition of Baby, Baby, Baby was a hit at the time and released as a single. I liked her performance and Mitchell's take on Mercer and Carmichael's I Guess It was You All the Time. The Bell Sisters are also cute in their comic performance of Take Back Your Gold.

I've only attended a few 3D films in a theater, so I'm no expert, but this was the first time I really enjoyed the format. While there were plenty of gimmicky shots of things like newspapers, parasols and beer glasses flying at the audience, the film didn't rely on those moments for entertainment value. This was the first time I felt that the composition of the film was arranged to take full advantage of that depth. Director Lewis R. Foster seems to have understood how to make the most of the format, grouping his actors and staging action so that you truly feel a part of the scene.

The restoration was amazing, from the clean sharp image to remarkably good sound. Sometimes the sound levels changed a bit, which could be mildly jarring, but it was always sharp and clear. I felt like the best had been done with the material at hand and the improvement was remarkable.

At the post screening Q&A I asked Furmanek which film the 3D Film Archive was planning or hoped to restore next, and he described the reality-based, 1953 Korean war film Cease Fire! I was struck by how different that was from the film we had just seen, which is also dramatically different from the Archive-restored science fiction film GOG (1954) that made its screen debut before that. At this point I will line up for anything this group produces. If they wanted to attract a wider audience to the wonders of 3D, they've got a convert in me.

Yesterday the 3D Film Archive's restoration of the film was also released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (1962)

One of the most amusing things about Ride the High Country is that as aging cowboys, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are in some ways playing themselves. While director Sam Peckinpah was at the beginning of his career, and still finding the style that would have film fans cooing about "balletic violence", these two were ready to head for the hills. Their retirement-minded insouciance gives this entertaining western a soulful feel that elevates it to classic status. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

McCrea is Steve Judd, a retired lawman who is hired to guard a gold shipment. He enlists his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) and the young Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help. The two hired men are planning to steal the gold for themselves, hoping that Steve will go along with their plot. He catches them in the act though, and plans to make them pay for it once they reach civilization.

The trio encounters further complications when they spend a night at the farm of an overbearingly religious father and his fed-up daughter Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). She makes a comment that gives you the feeling he hasn't been so holy with his daughter, so it isn't surprising when she insists on joining the trio so she can meet up with her beaux and get married at his mining camp. He's a rotten guy though, who doesn't seem to mind his leering brothers taking liberties with her (Warren Oates is perfectly cast as one of the sleazy siblings). Steve, Gil and Heck rescue her, bringing even more trouble on themselves.

While they try to variously enrich themselves, save their skins and find redemption for a lifetime of sins, Gil and Steve bond over their contemplation of old age. When a bar full of young toughs launches into a fight, they watch with amusement, perhaps remembering how they used to live for that kind of chaos, though they want nothing to do with it now. They talk about the women they have lost, how they now have husbands, and grandchildren, while the two men haven't changed much themselves.

Steve and Gil see a greater future in Elsa (and Heck is turned on to the point of aggression). She is sharp and energetic and arouses in them a romantic longing for the days they could court her, in addition to fatherly concern. They protect her out of decency, and perhaps for the better way of living she represents. Though young, Hartley already has a stronger moral compass than these men ever had and they seem to admire her character as much as her beauty.

Though it doesn't go for a strictly happy ending, in Ride the High Country there is the feeling that violence is inevitable, but true good can prevail. These old cowboys know that they are good enough, though they haven't much more to offer than their honor. They begin to see it as their legacy and that takes the edge off their disappointments.

This would be Randolph Scott's final film. McCrea had also planned to retire, but while this was his last notable performance, he did get pulled back in the saddle for a few more flicks.

The disc image is clear and clean, with a nice bit of grain to it. Special features on the Blu-ray include the previous DVD featurette A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country and commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

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

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Restored Marx Brothers and Rediscovered Nitrate

I started my 43rd Seattle International Film Festival experience yesterday with a pair of films that could hardly be more different. The Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers is familiar to many classic film fans, while the experimental documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time is a mysterious work, full of discoveries.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Marx Brothers expert and author Robert Bader spoke before the screening at the Egyptian Theater and answered a few questions at a brief Q&A afterwards. It was great to have his perspective, because I don’t think I would have appreciated what a treat this screening was otherwise.

The print was fully restored, which made me realize how many bad prints of Marx Brothers movies I'd been watching over the years. It was such a novelty to see everything sharp and clear, even in scenes when the lights went out. Now that I've got a taste of it, I really want to see a great print of Duck Soup (1933).

Some moments that are believed to have been trimmed for a 1936 release, after the production code started to be enforced, were restored for this version as well. The scenes only amount to a few minutes, and they don't stand out much, but it was nice to see a print without the awkward jumps that are familiar to film fans.

I was also intrigued by Bader's comment that Marx brother Zeppo had a lot more to offer as a performer, but through various circumstances never had the opportunity to fully develop his comic persona. That got me wondering about what kind of an impact the famous brothers would have had if four of them fully flexed their comic chops. That certainly didn't happen with Zeppo's brief moments in this film; a practically blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. Poor guy.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Director Bill Morrison's dreamily-paced documentary plays essentially like a silent film, with a collage of film clips, photos and subtitles. I enjoyed viewing it in the intimate setting of the SIFF Film Center. It tells the story of a gold rush town in the Yukon and the discovery of a stash of over 500 nitrate films found under its ice rink, many of them thought to be lost. Several clips from the recovered film are shared, sometimes with titles added to give historical perspective. I look forward to writing more about this fascinating film upon its full release. Suffice to say, the unusual, nostalgic tone and visual style had me thinking: this is the greatest documentary Guy Maddin never made.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans

This is a great year for documentaries of interest to classic film fans at the Seattle International Film Festival. In this first week of the festival I will be attending Dawson City: Frozen in Time (2016), a film about the discovery of a stash of nitrate films in Yukon territory.

In the weeks to come, classic film fans will also be treated to screenings of the highly anticipated My Journey Through French Cinema (2016) and Robin Lung's film about the Chinese American woman behind the first Academy Award-winning documentary, Finding KUKAN (2016).

I was able to preview these films and enjoyed both. My thoughts:

Tickets are already beginning to sell out for the two SIFF screenings of My Journey Through French Cinema, featuring director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight [1986], Coup de torchon [1981]). While it covers many films, filmmakers, actors and craftspeople, the movie has a relaxed feel, like an afternoon spent wandering a museum with a knowledgeable art expert. The film has been aptly compared to A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995); both men explore their passion for film with a similar wonder, knowledge and excitement.

Tavernier began his career as an assistant director and press agent to director Jean-Pierre Melville, and has thus met some of the filmmakers and actors he admires. Aside from tales of his somewhat contentious relationship with Melville, he shares his conversations with Jean Gabin and stories of Jean Renoir. He talks about how it felt to watch these films in a post-war French theater and then how those kinds of experiences were later filmed by other directors. Actresses like Simone Signore and Romy Schneider are also given their due and Tavernier pays great tribute to the composer Maurice Aubert (L'Atalante [1934]), who had an enormous influence on the mood of classic French cinema. There is an overall feeling of being enveloped by the experience of cinema.

Having only experienced French cinema from an American point of view, I found it fascinating to learn about a wider breadth of films from an expert on the country's output. While most of the movies that Tavernier considers classics are familiar to many fans around the world, he introduced me to some new faces and lesser known works of directors I admire.

It's hard to believe this film is over three hours; you get caught up in its easy flow, drifting from one film, star or conversation, to another. I am delighted that a second installment is in the works. Can't wait to hear what this man has to say about Jacques Tati.

In 1942, KUKAN:The Battle Cry of China (Bitter Struggle) won the first Academy Award for best documentary. Then it disappeared. For decades, no one seemed to care than a pioneering Oscar winning work had dropped so completely out of sight. 

That changed when filmmaker Robin Lung became curious about the film, suspecting that the technical advisor Ling-Ai LI had played a more significant role in its production. Finding KUKAN follows Lung on a search of seven years as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of the film and Li.

It is both a personal and wide-ranging film. As simple as a fourth generation Chinese American digging into her own culture and as complex as decades of relations between Americans and Chinese. Lung shares the frustrations and triumphs of her quest, and in the process communicates why learning the truth about Li is so important to her and film history. The camera captures her joy when she makes a new discovery and her disappointment when film going to vinegar, disinterested interview subjects and the limitations of the restoration process impede her progress. 

Li, with her confidence, charisma and undying energy is appropriately the spiritual center of the film (a fascinating 1993 interview she gave in her eighties is heavily featured), but KUKAN filmmaker Rey Scott is also given his due. It is interesting to watch Lung begin to appreciate more fully the sacrifices the adventurous photographer made to capture his footage, acknowledging his contributions while helping Li to receive credit for her full participation. The film is as much about Lung coming to terms with her discoveries as it is about the journey she makes to uncover the truth.

Here's the schedule information for these documentaries. Links go to the film's page on the SIFF website:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Friday, May 19, 6:30 pm, SIFF Film Center
Saturday, May 20, 9:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Finding KUKAN (2016)
Saturday, May 27, 12:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, May 28, 7:00 pm, AMC Pacific Place
Friday, June 2, 4:30 pm, Ark Lodge Cinemas

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
Saturday, June 3, 3:00 pm, SIFF Film Center
Friday, June 9, 7:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Sci-fi in Cinemascope, World Without End (1956)

Word Without End (1956) is an essentially unremarkable 50s sci-fi flick made more interesting by a few elements of its production, cast and design. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it is a good-looking film that plays it straight, though there are some unavoidably campy aspects to it.

It's the story of a pioneering space crew who become lost in time after completing the first mission to Mars. Finding themselves forced hundreds of years into a bleak future nuclear wasteland, the crew accepts its fate and tries to make the best of the situation. This involves dealing with the one-eyed, hairy mutants that terrorize all who attempt to set foot above ground and the odd population of apparently more civilized people who live below the Earth's surface.

Terrified of the beasts above, the men and children who have sought refuge underground have begun to shrivel away. Not the women though, who are vibrant, healthy, ready for the burlesque stage and very curious about the hearty, muscular crew that has dropped out of the sky. Jealous of these intergalactic hunks, the men are suspicious, even devious, as they resist the efforts of the crew to fight for life above ground.

Though it is essentially a 'B' movie, the production comes off as 'A' level luxurious, thanks to Cinemascope, Technicolor, elegant, if sparse set design and eye-popping costumes. Those last two were designed by the legendary pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, for the only film in which he would ever participate. For that reason, it isn't surprising that the ladies' dresses in this production don't leave a lot to the imagination (you don't get a close look at anyone bending over or even attempting to sit in the barely legal mini-dresses). These severely constructed garments are more than peek-a-boo frocks though; each is a mini masterpiece of structure and design, and starched so stiff that you half expect them to walk away on their own. Even the considerably more bland male characters below ground get to luxuriate in silky, bejeweled jackets and skull caps.

It makes sense that more established star Hugh Marlowe would be in the lead, but in hindsight the casting appears absurd when charming, hunky Rod Taylor, here in a supporting role, is clearly a more appropriate leading man. When Marlowe jumps into a fight scene with a mutant, you can't help but shake your head at the sight of Taylor standing on the sidelines. This was an early role for the always underrated Australian actor and one of the first hints of how magnetic he could be on the big screen. Amusingly enough, he would get the chance to play a lead with many similarities to this one a few years later in Time Machine (1960), where he would also battle barbaric hairy beasts in the future, though they would live below, rather than above ground (the plots were in fact so similar that H.G. Wells' estate sued the producers of World Without End).

While World Without End is never entirely campy, the outlandish costumes, the absurdity of a population of all anemic men and centerfold women and moments like Lisa Montell's highly expressive conversation with a mutant who is screeching at her from a cave do draw the odd giggle. It's not riotous fun, but it's amusing. Fans of Rod Taylor will not want to miss it.

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

Book Review-- Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood

Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood
Kirk and Anne Douglas with Marcia Newberger
TCM/Running Press, 2017

When I received Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood in my media swag bag for TCM Classic Film Festival, I didn't pay the book much mind. I mean that title: it didn't seem like this was going to be the most revealing of books. I've also never been a big fan of Kirk Douglas. His accomplishments in the movies and beyond are impressive, but even for an actor his ego is a bit off-putting. Eventually I decided to give it a look though, because these two have seen a lot and I figured they had to have some interesting stories to share about their years in the industry and as a couple of privilege.

The book alternates between letters, exchanged by the title couple and with people they have known, and their memories, both about the events they reference and the events leading up to them. There is a lot more biography to this than I expected and it is necessary to put all these communications in perspective. To understand Kirk Douglas movie star and Anne Douglas Hollywood matriarch, you need to see him as a young, impoverished Jew in New York City and her as a privileged, but often neglected boarding school student in Europe.

Douglas' massive ego is on full display here, and if you are not a fan, or even if you are, some of his actions will make you want to scream and throw the book across the room. Anne must have been deeply in love, or insane to put up with the insensitive way he treated her in the early years of his courtship. In one passage, Kirk, who has been stringing young Anne along, takes her with him to pick out an engagement ring for his other love, Pier Angeli. Amazingly enough, this was not a deal breaker.

The Democratic Douglases with pal Ronald Reagan in 1987
After years of uncertainty, the pair marry though, and against all odds, the match endures. While the love letters between them can be syrupy to the point of being vomitous, it is clear that they were deeply devoted to each other. In a time where the husband ruled the roost, Anne always found a way to prevail when she sensed her husband was on the wrong track. While Kirk requires loyalty and submissiveness he can't always return, he also seems to understand that his wife is intelligent, driven and needs power and the ability to pursue her own interests.

Because the Douglases have given each other the freedom to live fully, their stories are that much more compelling. Their correspondence and stories are full of interesting tidbits about the movie business, the people who populated it and its social structures and politics. It's encouraging to see how much of their fortune they have donated to causes they hold dear, like the construction of playgrounds for children who would otherwise have unsafe equipment. There were moments here so touching that I was moved to tears.

While the Douglases don't hesitate to admit that things haven't always been perfect between them, and that Kirk's infidelities and self-absorption have played a role in their story, you get the feeling there's another, darker story beneath it all. It's in the way they reveal some things, but nothing terribly deep. The way Kirk asks his son in a letter, "Was I a good father?" as if he knows something went awry. You look at his massive charity works and see the good in it all, but is there a search for redemption here? It isn't likely that question will be answered. 

This is an engrossing, often touching book. It carefully presents exactly what we are meant to see, while hinting at those mysteries throughout.

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

Warner Archive--Pre-code Double Feature: Ladies of the Jury (1932) and Smart Woman (1931)

This week I watched  Smart Women (1931) and Ladies of the Jury (1932) a pair of pre-codes now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Smart Woman

In one of the sharp young woman roles she frequented after her her silent cameo girl days, Mary Astor plays devoted wife Nancy Gibson, who learns her husband Donald (Robert Ames) is stepping out on her. Devastated, she decides to use indirect means to win back her man. She invites his paramour Peggy to stay with them for the weekend (Noel Francis, who was always good for stealing a man if Claire Dodd wasn't around), with her equally devious mother (Gladys Gale) in tow. Also on the guest list: Sir Guy Harrington, a much sought-after bachelor who pursued Nancy in vain on a recent cruise. Guy knows Nancy only needs him to make her look desirable, but attends in the hope of changing her mind about him.

It's hard to understand why Nancy wishes to win back her disloyal husband as Ames is neither attractive, witty or charismatic. Sadly this is partly due to the fact that the actor was nearly dead from alcoholism and could not hide the trauma of his personal struggles. However, it's hard to picture how even in better health this unappealing man could have believably won back his betrayed wife.

After getting her blood going with a few sessions of vigorous exercise outside with Sir Guy, Peggy isn't so sure she wants Donald. It's clear that she's not the kind of woman to settle, but in this case, she doesn't seem off the mark.

Though it has its moments, it doesn't add up to much more than blandly pleasant entertainment. Edward Everett Horton manages to slide in a few zingers in a supporting role as Donald's brother-in-law.

The image is watchable, though a little rough around the edges. There are quite a few pops on the soundtrack. There are no special features on the disc.

Ladies of the Jury

In a rare solo leading role (most of her headliners were as the detective Hildegarde Withers), the always reliable character actress Edna Mae Oliver is delightfully silly in this comedy that shows its stage play origins. In a madcap precursor to Twelve Angry Men, the actress is Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane, a wealthy juror who takes control of a murder trial when she is initially the sole member to believe in the innocence of a French former showgirl (Jill Esmond) who is accused of murdering her estranged husband. Taking place almost entirely in a courtroom and a jury deliberation room, the film relies heavily on fast-paced dialogue and constant jokes to grab audience interest.

With her long face, snooty voice and broad mannerisms, I would think that for the most part a little Edna Mae goes a long way, but with plenty of quips, characters and twists to keep the action going, she never wears out her welcome here. She somehow manages to be both broad and subtle, playing big with her voice, but also sneaking in extra layers of meaning with a roll of the eyes or a dip of the chin. In addition to being able to speak fluent French with the defendant, she implies that she knows plenty about the sort of life that could lead to a predicament in which the lady on trial finds herself.

In the sort of wealthy matron role that would generally involve a lot of pearl clutching, Crane plays against the type as a woman who enjoys the freedom and privilege her wealth gives her and is appreciative of the more playful, racy elements of life. She's also a straight shooter, whose morals prevent her from hiding behind that privilege. Those morals extend to saving innocent ladies, but not so much to following the law in order to achieve that goal.

The heavily populated supporting cast ranges from wooden to humorous, no one threatening to outshine Oliver, but most of them providing good support, and occasionally a few laughs. By the end of the 64 minute running time, it feels time to move on, but this flick is good fun.

Though it has lots of tiny dirt marks and scratches, the image is watchable and generally good. There are no special features on the disc.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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