Streaming Diary: Buster Keaton, Christopher Plummer and More Stream Free Via The National Film Board of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada is a wondrous organization, giving opportunities to innovative, talented filmmakers and preserving decades of fascinating work. Many of the films supported by the group are available to stream on its official website, several for free (some limited to residents of Canada) and some for a membership fee. 

I have spent many jawdropping hours browsing this site. It is an amazing resource and a great place for classic film fans to find new treasures. Here are some of my favorite titles available for free viewing (all titles link to the film's streaming page):

The Railrodder (1965)

It is delightfully poetic that one of Buster Keaton's last films would be silent. This travelogue, meant to boost Canadian tourism, is also one of the comic's best late career performances. He plays an Englishman who jumps into the Thames and walks across the Atlantic Ocean floor to the shores of Canada. There he hops on railway track speeder and races across the country, taking in the sights with that familiar stone face and air of nonchalant efficiency. It's a gorgeous, peaceful film, full of lovely scenery and the silent charms of one of the best movie comedians, still in great form and executing clever gags. He even gets to wear that legendary pork pie hat again.

A great companion piece to The Railrodder, this documentary about the making of the film, with a little biography mixed in, amusingly runs twice as long as the short. In addition to showing lots of behind-the-scenes action, it's a revealing document of Keaton in his later years, where he had finally found some contentment and still had a fully intact sense of humor. He comes off as a genuinely nice guy and is just as entertaining being himself as he ever was in any part he played. It's great fun to watch him with his wife Eleanor, who lovingly, but briskly berates him for tuning his ukulele strings too low and later shouts at a television baseball game with her equally enthusiastic husband.

This short, narrated and directed by Anne Claire Poirier, and set in the milieu of the Shakespearean Theater in Stratford, Ontario, does not feature as much of Christopher Plummer as the title suggests, but nevertheless offers a few interesting glimpses of the actor in his early years. It's fun to watch him sit in front of his dressing room mirror, attaching an enormous nose for a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac and priceless to observe him smoking a cigarette while chatting with a large, black crow perched on his shoulder. Stage director Michael Langham and fellow thespians Kate Reid, Len Birman, and Martha Henry also make an appearance. Plummer's daughter Amanda, who was six-years-old at the time, also appears briefly, early in the film.

Plummer is also interviewed in The Performer (1959), a documentary about Canadian artists available on the site (he appears around 37:00). In an funny, acidic moment, he is taken to task by the interviewer for leaving Canada for Broadway after raving about the theater scene in his home country. Don't miss the fantastic scene featuring pianist Oscar Peterson and his combo.

Norman McLaren drawing directly on film, 1944 (Image Source)

Experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren is perhaps most famous for his Academy Award-winning short Neighbours (1952), but there is so much more to this boundary-pushing artist. He was a masterful abstract animator and stop motion artist, in addition to creating works that brilliantly captured the spirit of dancers and other performance artists. 

There are several McLaren works on the site. Recommended: the moody dance piece Pas de deux (1968), playful animations Boogie-Doodle (1941) and Synchromy (1971), and the slapstick shorts Opening Speech (1961, starring the filmmaker himself) and my favorite McLaren film: A Chairy Tale (1957), which features a chair animated by Evelyn Lambart and the music of Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal.

Claude Jutra in A Chairy Tale (1957)

There's so much more to explore on the NFB site, from short and feature length films, to documentaries and animation. If you like these films, I recommend taking the time to browse the rest of the site.

On DVD: Monica Vitti and Tony Curtis in The Chastity Belt (1967)

Imagine Tony Curtis and Monica Vitti dressed in period garb, covered in leaves and wrestling with each other on the forest floor. If the thought amuses you, then The Chastity Belt (1967), also known as On the Way to the Crusades I Met a Girl Who…, is bound to do so as well. Curtis was always at his best playing vain, silly characters and Vitti shines when she has the opportunity to face serious situations with a “what can you do?” insouciance. Here the pair plays to those strengths, so while it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole, this free-wheeling flick, now available on DVD from Warner Archive, has its moments.

Vitti plays a gamekeeper’s daughter and Curtis a newly anointed knight she adores. She resents that he wants to take her, rather than allowing her the opportunity to giver herself to him, but eventually they are married. On their wedding night he is summoned to immediately return to fighting in the Crusades. Intent on preserving his bride until they may consummate their marriage, he snaps her into a chastity belt against her will. Vitti spends the rest of the film chasing her groom, so that she may get the key and free herself.

Monica Vitti and a dog that she resembles
The Chastity Belt is a costume pic frolic in the bawdy spirit of Tom Jones (1963). Filmed in Italy, but with an eye on US distribution, it always feels on the edge of being as bawdy as it wants to be, with just a glimpse of nudity and a taste of sensuality, but more slapstick than anything else. It is a jumble of moments, but some moments can be very good, and like the scene where Curtis flashes a group of nuns as he races by on a bed pulled by a donkey, it is at its best when it gets a little racy.

While it taps into a lot of the counterculture and free love sentiment of the day, in many ways we are at the wrong cultural moment to draw even retro amusement from The Chastity Belt. The film takes light amusement from Vitti being kidnapped, harassed, attacked, stripped naked, wrapped in rope and called “it”. She is told by a supposed wise man that women don’t have souls, by Curtis that she is his to take, and her father gladly leaves her to the knight as if he is lending him a cup of sugar. However, you can also see the tide turning when after all she endures, Vitti dons a glam, jewel-studded suit of gold armor and starts taking things into her own hands.

Tony Curtis and a horse that resembles Monica Vitti
Vitti and Curtis are an odd romantic pair, but well-matched when it comes to humor. Neither of them seems to take anything too seriously and they both know what to do with the array of physical goofing and visual gags the script throws at them. If you look at it as lively fluff, it’s a good time.

The picture quality is marvelous, displaying the gorgeous leads in their colorful costumes beautifully. With the open air feel of the location shots, it can sometimes have the feel of a bunch of hippies frolicking in the country in flowing finery. It is possible that, at least to a degree, that was the intent.

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

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 Great Episodes

I subscribe to an overwhelming number of podcasts, covering a wide range of subjects, and of course that includes classic movies. As much as I am always scrambling to keep up with new episodes, every once in a while a show will stick with me and maybe even inspire me to listen again. I want to start sharing these episodes as I come upon them, because there's so many podcasts out there that I know it can be difficult to weed through it all and find the best of the bunch. Expect more posts like this one!

Do you have a favorite podcast that would be of interest to classic film fans? Do you have a movie-themed podcast? Then please share in the comments!

All podcast titles lead to the show's webpage, specific show titles link to the episode discussed:

Illeana Douglas is well known to many classic film fans as a true cinema devotee and student of film history. Much like her book I Blame Dennis Hopper, her podcast is full of love for, and insightful critical appreciation of, the movies. Primarily an interview show, many episodes touch on different aspects of classic film,but my favorite by far is Douglas' interview with television host and writer Alicia Malone. I think a lot of movie fans will be able to relate to her tales of childhood movie obsession, collecting VHS tapes, recording intros off TV, and the terribly lonely feeling of being the only kid in school who adores classic film. (also listen to episodes with Beverly Gray, Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Peter Bogdanovich, Beverly D’Angelo)

Twenty Thousand Hertz
The Wilhelm Scream

This slickly produced podcast about different aspects of sound often touches on issues of interest to classic film fans. My favorite is the episode about the most famous movie scream ever recorded and the cult that has risen up around this split second snippet of sound.

Supporting Characters
Danny Peary

My favorite thing about Cult Movies author Danny Peary is his complete lack of pretension and snobbishness when it comes to film. While he looks at the medium with a highly critical eye, he understands that great cinema can come in any form. That attitude is what has made his books, including the popular Cult series, among the most successful in the film arena. He brings that spirit to this lengthy, wide-ranging conversation on the podcast Supporting Characters, in which he covers many aspects of film, the cinematic culture in which he grew up, and his books. This is simply a great audio document to have available for film fans. (also listen to the episode featuring Molly Haskell.)

The Hilarious World of Depression
Dick Cavett

This podcast focuses on comedians dealing with depression, but its episode featuring Dick Cavett is a can't-miss treat for classic film fans. In addition to poignantly discussing his struggles with the disease, he talks about his experiences with celebrities like Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, and Judy Garland.

Film writer Kristen Lopez (full disclosure: she has been my editor at ClassicFlix) hosts a lovely podcast featuring film reviews and interviews with various personalities of interest to classic film fans. I especially enjoyed the episode in which she interviewed Hollywood Forever Cemetery tour guide Karie Bible, who is perhaps best known for many years playing the role of the mysterious woman in black, a tribute based on a real Rudolph Valentino fan who so garbed would place a rose on the actor's grave each year on the anniversary of his death. Here she shares her experiences guiding classic film fans through this famous cemetery.

Studio 360/featuring Aisha Harris of Represent

While she has attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, Represent podcast host and Slate writer Aisha Harris devotes most of her energy to thoughtful analysis of current pop culture. Every once in a while discussion about a classic enters the mainstream again though, as happened when theater owners, exhibitors, and critics began to examine Gone With the Wind (1939) through the current cultural viewpoint and rethink how it should now be presented to the public and whether sometimes it shouldn't be screened at all. This is actually a guest appearance that Harris made on the Studio 360 podcast, which she posted on the feed for her show, but I wanted to highlight her own podcast because it is so good and worth a listen as well.

Pre-code on DVD: Goodbye Again (1933), I Like Your Nerve (1931), and The Finger Points (1931)

One of my favorite things about Warner Archive is the label’s commitment to releasing a steady stream of pre-code titles on DVD. As physical media appears to be firmly on the decline, I am increasingly glad to see rare films like these made available for purchase. The latest batch is a solidly entertaining trio: two comedy romances and a drama, starring some of the most appealing stars of the era.

Goodbye Again (1933)

Joan Blondell and Warren William shared the ability to make any film they appeared in better, just because of their presence. While they’ve made plenty of mediocre films, neither of them ever turned in a bad performance or even worse, were ever boring.

Here they play famous novelist Ken Bixby (William) and his loyal secretary Anne (Joan Blondell), who are on the road to promote his latest novel. On their latest stop, Ken runs into Julie (Genevieve Tobin) a long forgotten lover who is bored with her husband (Hugh Herbert) and all atwitter because she believes that she is the inspiration for the heroine of his new book. Julie gets Bixby into a compromising position, inflaming the town, her family, and in his way, her husband.

Of course you know William will finally see the light and love up Blondell. All the fun here is in watching them tangle with the establishment. I like Ms. Joan any way I can get her, but as far as William is concerned, he’s at his best as he is here, mischievous, quick tongued and goofy. He has such a severe look: tall, thin and with that pointed nose and stick straight mustache; it’s great to see him play off that by resisting convention and seriousness in every other way.

Tobin, Helen Chandler, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, and Wallace Ford are lively and quirky support, working up that Warner Bros company momentum that made the studio’s flicks the most satisfying of the era.

I Like Your Nerve (1931)

As a romantic pairing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Loretta Young don’t quite sizzle, but the are still gorgeous, sexy and vibrantly youthful in this fast-paced romance. Fairbanks is Larry, a playboy in Latin America who seems to adore getting in trouble with the authorities because of the thrill of escape. Young is Diane, stepdaughter of Areal Pacheco (Henry Kolker), a shady embezzler. She is marrying a much older man, Clive Lattimer (Edmund Breon) to keep her stepfather from being killed, but only for the honor of her dead mother.

Larry falls for Diane and quickly cuts through the hypocrisy around her so that he may have her for his own. When it comes to the title, the young, mischievous lover may come first to mind, but Lattimer and Pacheco also have plenty of nerve in the way they treat Diane. At least Larry is an honest troublemaker.

It’s fun to watch Fairbanks and Young flirt and fight their way out of the various messes they’ve gotten themselves into. Boris Karloff also makes a pleasing, if brief appearance as a servant. This is an hour of froth and a delightful one at that.

The Finger Points (1931)

This newspaper drama starring Richard Barthelmess is the darkest of the trio, though there is plenty of light humor to balance the mood. Barthelmess is a country boy just arrived in Chicago with a letter of recommendation from the small town newspaper where he got his start. He finds himself a job at a big city rag and becomes friends with reporters Fay Wray and Regis Toomey. Soon he finds himself falling under the influence of the mob, including Louis Blanco, played by a young, pre-King Clark Gable.

I respect Richard Barthelmess more than I enjoy him. His talent is unmistakable, but that tense hunch of his and the feeling that he hasn’t got any sense of humor always make him difficult for me to stomach. That said, this is the most I’ve seen him tap into human warmth, which I credit mostly to his chemistry with Fay Wray, who doesn’t act so much as bless everyone with her presence.

Seeing Gable in this role, it is clear that he could have easily fallen into a career of playing thugs. He exudes star charisma, just like Cagney did in his early parts, where he similarly didn’t make sense playing support, but the muscular, bold man wasn’t yet in vogue as a desirable romantic lead. Watching him opposite Barthelmess, you can see the shift happening: the more delicate gentlemen of the silent age falling aside for the likes of Gable.

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.

Catching a Pair of Double Features at Noir City 2018

Eddie Mueller speaks before a film at Noir City Seattle, Egyptian Theater

After years of not quite making it to the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival, I finally decided that 2018 was going to be my year. While I only saw four of the eighteen films programmed, I am now hooked. Sign me up for a series pass in 2019!

There are two elements that make this series essential: it has the perfect mix of familiar and rare flicks, all presented with a high standard of quality, and each is preceded by fascinating film introductions from the knowledgeable Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller. Now TCM viewers can also get a taste of Mueller’s cinema smarts via his weekly Noir Alley program, but I must say it is worth seeing him in person, where he clearly delights in interacting with the crowd and chatting up noir fans face-to-face.

I attended two nights of this year’s festival in Seattle, at the Egyptian Theater, and had distinctly different experiences with each of these double features, all four of which were presented in 35 mm.

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
I’ve never been a big fan of omnibus films. They often feel too scattered to me and made with not enough understanding of how differently short stories must be approached. This European-flavored production, directed by Julien Duvivier and starring a fascinating cast of Hollywood stars works brilliantly though, because it keeps a steady thread of magical fatalism winding through its episodes, giving it a cohesive feel. The three stories have been compared to the dark, supernatural Twilight Zone television series and the description is apt. In essence, they are tales of lovers struggling to survive widely varying difficulties. Given this theme, there couldn’t be a more perfect cast than the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer and Betty Field, all of whom could easily grasp the romance, hope and pain of their roles.

Destiny (1944)
This short film was originally intended to serve as the opening segment of Flesh and Fantasy. Instead it was excised by Universal Studios and expanded into its own feature. Starring former child star Gloria Jean as a blind farmer’s daughter and Alan Curtis as an accused robber on the run, it has a few magical elements that unfortunately gave some audience members the giggles. While I could see how a few moments where Jean’s songs attracted animals to her might have had an amusingly Disney princess-like feel, it was a bit disappointing to be taken out of the moment by the laughter. While the story worked as a stand-alone, it would be interesting to see how the footage intended for Flesh and Fantasy would have fit into that film.

While my first night at the festival was magical and surreal, the second had a much rougher edge. This pair of thrillers left me plenty tense.

The Accused (1949)
I have never felt more empathy for Loretta Young than I did for her here as a college psychology teacher who kills a student who attempts to rape her. Knowing that she had had a similar experience with Clark Gable (as noted by Mueller in his introduction) and who knows who else in her Hollywood career, I was especially anxious watching her deal with her trauma while observing the police hunting for her without knowing she is the killer. She has a romance with a lawyer played by Robert Cummings, an actor who used to seem useless to me, but who has grown on me because of a dark understanding of human nature he brings to the best of his roles. Police detective Wendell Corey watches their romance unfold with good-natured envy, while slowly realizing he’s really not going to like doing his job this time around. It's an interesting flick because of the tenderness with which it treats its assault victim and the way it breaks with convention here and there, ending how you expect it to, but not where.

The Threat (1949)
As tense as The Accused made me, I quickly realized it was a cocktail party compared to this violent, tightly-wound suspense noir. Charles McGraw is a sociopathic nightmare as an ex-con who escapes from prison and sets out to get revenge on his enemies before he makes a full getaway. His lack of conscience gives him power over his showgirl ex (Virginia Grey), the district attorney, a police detective, a truck driver and a pair of greedy hoods. The crazy thing is that you believe this one man could control them all and you even wonder if he’s going to get away with it all. Grey is especially moving as a woman who appears weak, until you realize how much she has to have survived living the way she does. McGraw is one of the nastiest noir hoods I’ve ever seen, much scarier than the more cartoonish villains like Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. He reminds me a lot of Lawrence Tierney, who is perhaps the only one who could top him in nasty behavior, and that's just because he always makes you wonder if he was acting or just being himself.

Even catching a couple of nights of this festival was a thrill. It was wonderful to see four completely new-to-me films, lovingly presented and with an appreciative audience. I was especially glad I went into the screenings knowing nothing about what I was going to see; it was a good situation in which to put my trust in the programmers. If you have the chance to check out any of the festival's remaining engagements as it travels across the country, I enthusiastically recommend it!

On Blu-ray: Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and Karl Malden in The Hanging Tree (1959)

As Gary Cooper neared the end of his career he appeared tired, ill, and not quite himself due to a facelift that might not have turned out the way he’d hoped. While he no longer had the bashful, baby-giraffe-lashed sex appeal of his youth though, he was still magnetic. He aroused different emotions, but they were no less intense. It is this Cooper that you see in his final western, The Hanging Tree (1959), which has now made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

While Cooper spent much of career in a cowboy hat, it was as a rider of the plains, not as a doctor lancing a carbuncle on Karl Malden’s behind. That’s just what he does here as Dr. Joseph Frail, a medical man with a dark past who sets up shop in a Montana gold camp.

The mysterious Frail has lives by a varied moral code, frequently giving in to his anger, but protective in his own way of those who are vulnerable. When he takes a sluice thief on the run Rune (Ben Piazza) into indentured servitude, it seems a foul move, until you realize the boy would probably die without the protection and productive life Frail offers him. His protection of stagecoach hold-up victim Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) is less complicated; she arouses his sense of chivalry, and while a romance must inevitably develop between the star and leading lady, his paternal impulses as well.

With her wet, icy blue eyes and soulful demeanor, Schell is out of place in the Wild West. She also seems a better match for Rune, who matches her energy and naivety. While the pair bond over their determined and businesslike pursuit of gold, they are both beholden to Frail, to whom they are aware they owe their survival.

In a complicated role that inspires a mix of amusement and revulsion, Karl Malden injects much-needed energy as a miner who is capable of decency, but imprisoned by his desires. George C. Scott is also a stand-out, in his debut role, as a fiery preacher who is Frail’s nemesis.

The film is ultimately an intriguing oddity. It doesn’t quite gel, but its disparate elements entertain in their own way. It is a decent farewell to cowboy Cooper.

The disc includes a trailer for the film.

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

Streaming Movies for Free: Kanopy

There are so many streaming services available to movie fans that it took me a while to find my way to Kanopy, but once I did, it immediately became a part of my viewing rotation. That is because this fabulous company lets patrons of participating libraries stream great films for free on platforms like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and web browsers. We’re talking offerings from labels the likes of Criterion Collection, Milestone Films, and Kino Lorber.

Kanopy began as a service to increase access to cinema for university students in Australia. You can see those academic roots in the title selection, as in addition to narrative films, there’s a lot of documentaries in the mix, including several PBS titles.

Eventually Kanopy expanded to universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, and more recently, public libraries. Now it is available to a much wider audience, as movies can be viewed via public libraries in cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.

The Kanopy layout looks like an ad-free version of YouTube, with suggested videos queued to the right side of the screen and a section for viewer comments below. As far as functionality and image quality go, it runs smoothly, looks good, and is easy to navigate. The viewing experience tends to be of better quality than Overdrive, another platform used by libraries (and which I still love and recommend). The main page of the streaming site has the standard set up of arranging films in categories for viewing recommendations and offering the capability for a personal viewing list.

About the only drawback to Kanopy is that each cardholder is allowed to view only five movies a calendar month. This is of course nothing for your standard movie fan, so it would be difficult to satisfy a full-blown cinema obsession with this service alone. Still, as a supplement to other services it has a lot to offer. It’s also pretty exciting to get that email that you are welcome to enjoy five more movies the first of each month.

When it comes to the selection, I’ve found that having a well-curated array of choices has led me to some great titles I’ve never heard of before and inspired me to be a bit more adventurous in my viewing as well. My first month using the service I revisited Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), finally caught up with the brutal, but beautiful Belladonna of Sadness (1973), got in a little over my head with the hallucinogenic Eden and After (1970), and enjoyed the new-to-me comic adventure That Man From Rio (1964) starring Françoise Dorléac and Jean-Paul Belmondo. I finished the month with a re-watch of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962).

As a supplement to other services and discs, Kanopy is a great way to explore high quality films from around the world and across time. I’m glad to have an additional, budget-friendly viewing option.

Update: I wanted to highlight a comment about Kanopy viewing limits posted below. It seems the number of films allowed per month varies, depending on the library: 

"That monthly limit seems to vary from library to library, too. One user of the New York Public Library said that they are allowed 10 items a month. I'm a patron of the Kansas City Missouri Public Library and they allow 12 a month, and they give you three days per video to view them.

Thank you for the additional information Mark!

On Blu-ray: Genre Throwbacks Night Moves (1975) and The Man With Two Brains (1983)

It’s interesting the many ways a film can pay tribute to the classic age of Hollywood. As proof of this there is Night Moves (1975) and The Man with Two Brains (1983), two flicks which are completely different in tone and structure, but share affection for classic Hollywood genres. The former is both a throwback and a modern progression of film noir, the latter a humorous tribute to the many sci-fi flicks from the 1950s with wacky premises. Both films are now available in their Blu-ray debuts from Warner Archive.

Night Moves

At its core, Night Moves is much like a classic World War II era noir. The sense of doom, devious characters, and determined detective protagonist are all reminiscent of the great crime films from that time. Most of what makes it modern is on the surface: more explicit sexuality, extensive location shooting and a looser sense of morals.

As the detective unraveling the mystery surrounding a reckless wild child, and his own uneasy marriage, Gene Hackman is the more profoundly modern element of this neo noir. While he is as physically tough and fearless as Bogie, Mitchum, and their kind, he is a more emotionally vulnerable hero. He doesn’t pretend to be without feeling and he exists in a time where no one would fault him for expressing his emotions.

There is also a difference in the female leads. While the femme fatale here remains an erotic figure as in classics of the genre, the sexual revolution has also made room for sensuality in the warm-hearted dame, played here with confidence and sexy nonchalance by a teenage Melanie Griffith. While it could be said that she is punished for that freedom, it is a progression of sorts that the heroine can enjoy erotic expression instead of being forced to telegraph her goodness by remaining chaste.

Overall it is an interesting progression of the classic detective noir and one of the more successful modern interpretations of that cinematic style.

Special features on the disc include a vintage featurette about the film: The Day of the Director and a theatrical trailer.

The Man with Two Brains

While director Carl Reiner’s joke-packed comedy about a brain surgeon (Steve Martin) pursuing true love is presented as an homage to classic sci-fi flicks with wild premises, it draws upon other genres with glee. It’s got Kathleen Turner as a film noir-style femme fatale, a murder mystery, lots of screwball-style wordplay, and even a little slapstick. For all its goofball antics though, it is at heart a great tribute to the movies.

It is those antics, combined with the film love behind them, that make The Man with Two Brains a classic in its own way. Reiner and Martin both have a knack for creating precise comedy that ends up with the feel of globs of paint being thrown at a canvas. They make a sort of comic stew, tossing recurring jokes alongside brief, throwaway jabs, and stopping the action from time-to-time for more elaborate gags like an astonishing scene where a little girl is given a long list of instructions for a hospital and recites them back perfectly, in addition to adding her own medical diagnosis. It flows so well that you can miss how complex it all is.

There are no special features on this disc.

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

Classic Film Tributes: My Favorite Google Doodles

Google has always made a practice of acknowledging classic film in its popular doodle art, but lately, it seems like there have been many more cinematic tributes. And I love it! 

This week's Sergei Einstein sketch amusingly made the filmmaker into a dashing cutie. Here's the real deal:

I guess he's still a cutie. In his way. In any case, it was great to see the master of montage get some attention. The doodle featured images from his films. You can get a closer look at the frames chosen in this GIF:

As there have been so many classic film tributes lately, I got to thinking about the doodles I have loved in the past and I did a search to find more images. Here are some of my favorites:

Actress Katy Jurado. Wonderful to see a Mexican actress in the spotlight.

Actress Marlene Dietrich. This evocative image was created by RuPaul Drag Race winner Sasha Velour, who dressed as the icon on the show.

Actress Dolores del Río. Another Mexican actress represented!

Cinematographer James Wong Howe. Though he worked most of his life in Hollywood, for some reason this doodle did not appear on the USA Google page. This of course did not stop classic film fans in the States from finding it.

Actress/Director/Mogul Mary Pickford. I love that this doodle shows America's (Canadian) Sweetheart with a camera, acknowledging her varied contributions to film.

Actress/Inventor Hedy Lamarr. The multi-talented star got a one minute montage for her doodle and it is lovely.

Designer Saul Bass. It is appropriate that this legendary title designer also got his own montage. It would be impossible to pick one image to represent him.

Costume Designer Edith Head. I didn't get a lot done the morning this one came out. A couple of those costumes stumped me and I had to figure out the films she'd made them for and who wore them.

It's a lot of fun to look at the international film doodles as well.

Animated Filmmaker Lotte Reiniger. This tribute to the German animation pioneer is one of the most beautiful.

Playback Singer Mo Raffi. How is there not one for the first lady of playback singing Lata Mangeshkar though?

Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya. At over three minutes, this has to be one of the longest doodle tributes, but there is a lot to cover.

Director Satyajit Ray. This is an especially lovely tribute. Gorgeous enough to hang on a wall.

Director François Truffaut. This image captures the spirit of the French filmmaker perfectly.

While I love the diversity of the Google Doodles, it would be great to see more actors of color represented. I'm thinking Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Anna May Wong, and Toshiro Mifune to start. How about some female directors as well? Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Lois Weber would all be great doodles.

There are so many other great Google Doodle film tributes. Do you have a favorite I haven't included here? Tell me about it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Francis Ford Coppola Talks Film and Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On DVD: Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell Triple Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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