On Blu-ray/DVD--Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries

At the peak of his career, director Frank Capra set aside his Hollywood work to make films in support of the US World War II effort. As a unit producer, director and advisor, he helped to craft a series of propaganda films to boost soldier moral and educate about the meaning of war. Olive Films has compiled five of these productions in a new collection hosted by Capra biographer Joseph McBride.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is the variety of tone and focus in Capra’s work. The Academy Award-winning Prelude to War (1942) is an upbeat call to action, with a practically cheerful narrator, though it motivates by evoking terror of marching armies of Nazis. The two-parter The Battle of Russia (1943) takes a more somber tone, acknowledging the massive loss of life the country experienced during wartime. The Negro Soldier (1944) is pure propaganda, speeding past the reasons for the civil war, US racial tensions, and the segregation of the Army to ensure young black men of their value to the effort. One of the more cinematic efforts, Tunisian Victory (1944) had a score by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, voice work by actor Burgess Meredith and input from director John Huston. The starkest film of the bunch is Your Job in Germany (1945), which sternly warns soldiers to remain wary of German citizens post Nazi defeat.

In addition to hosting the short documentary Frank Capra: Why We Fight, McBride provides low-key introductions for each film. I found these intros useful in understanding the context, reception, and meaning of each production. Apparently some of the intense battle scenes and footage of masses of marching Nazis were almost too effective, inspiring terror instead of the fire to fight in some of the enlisted men in the audience. Capra was aware of the effectiveness of his work, and so proud of his results that he wanted the films to be released to theaters so that he could get the praise he felt due to him.

McBride began his study of Capra because of contradictions he observed when meeting with the director and the skepticism those observations inspired in him give his analysis of the man an interesting edge. While acknowledging his talent, he also notes how Capra’s ego and hypocrisy played a role in his wartime work and film career before and after. The result is a revealing, fascinating portrait of the filmmaker.

As a package, this is as interesting a portrait of Capra as it is a rich historical document. It’s a great starting point for exploring the works of the Hollywood directors, also including John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Ford, who created cinema to support the war effort.

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

Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind Finally Sees the Light of Day

What would Orson Welles have thought of his meticulously crafted final flick The Other Side of the Wind making its debut on Netflix? That’s been on my mind ever since the streaming service announced that the long anticipated film would finally be making its debut on the platform, over forty years after filming wrapped. Would he embrace the wide reach of this technology that arrived long after his death? Or would he scorn a limited theatrical release and focus on home viewing?

As a classic film fan, I’m just grateful to be able to see it. For many years, I wondered if it was even possible. While I kept my expectations low, partly because the director himself was not able to oversee the final edit, I knew that a work by Welles would have something intriguing to offer, whatever the flaws.

The director had reportedly asked filmmaker and friend Peter Bogdanovich (he also appears in the film as essentially himself) to oversee final edits if he was ever not able to do so himself, and as that has happened and Welles’ partner and co-writer Oja Kodar has also had input in the completion of the film, I believe the final product is as close to his vision as could be achieved.

Welles’ story follows Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a director with a Hemingway-style macho vibe on the last day of his life. He has just completed a film, despite the fact that his leading man walked off the set in the middle of a key scene, and he is celebrating his birthday at an isolated ranch with a chaotic band of co-workers, friends, journalists, and hangers-on. That celebration is juxtaposed with scenes from the film, which appears to be a spoof of the intensely symbolic works of European filmmakers (apparently the movie was made very close to the house Michelangelo Antonioni used as a location for Zabriskie Point [1970]).

The assembly of personalities from old and new Hollywood alone is enough to make The Other Side of the Wind a remarkable film. It’s stunning to hear the distinctive voices of the likes of John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Lilli Palmer, and Edmond O’Brien saying new things so long after they have left us. Among the party guests is the new wave of filmmaking: Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, and Claude Chabrol among them. They all have plenty to say about film, each other, and Hannaford.

In contrast to the chatter at the party, the stars of the film-within-the-film Bob Random and Kodar remain silent, both on and off the screen. While they don't reveal themselves with speech, both are naked for most of their scenes, a combination of emotional self-protection and physical vulnerability that was new for Welles.

The aggressive sexuality of their scenes together is also a dramatic departure for Welles, who always claimed to be a prude and scornful of film nudity. Kodar was responsible for this change in the director. In addition to being a perfect intellectual match for him, she awakened eroticism in him which he seemed to be learning to process here.

It is in a way fortunate that The Other Side of the Wind is on Netflix, because the film requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. On first glance, there’s so much going on. Conversations flying from everywhere, quick edits, different film stocks representing the view of multiple cameras. It can take the whole running time to simply establish who everyone is, and the wide array of their motives and desires. On second viewing, I also got a better feel for the varied rhythm of the film, from the jittery jump cuts of the party scenes to the long, luxurious shots of Hannaford’s last work.

The complex production was filled with enough drama to warrant an entire book: Josh Karp’s The Making of the Other Side of the Wind, my review of which was one of the most read posts ever on A Classic Movie Blog. Film fans have clearly been hungry for this film. 

There is also a documentary about the film on Netflix called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), and while it is full of fascinating archival footage and frank interviews with key players in the cast and crew, it doesn’t capture the scope and spirit of the project the way Karp has. The film is worth a watch, but the book is essential.

Quote: Orson Welles on Being a Filmmaker

My definition of a filmmaker is a man who presides over accidents.

-Orson Welles

Quote Source

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: 6 Great Episodes

Just when I think I’ve found every podcast worthy of a classic film fan’s attention, another batch of interesting choices comes across my radar. I’ve got some great finds this time around, in addition to some old favorites. The biggest heartbreak: the wonderful episode of FilmStruck podcast that I just enjoyed will be the last, as the streaming service it promotes will end November 29. However, knowing Alicia Malone, she will find another way to keep her valuable voice in that arena.

On to my latest picks. Show titles link to the episode:

The Made for TV Mayhem Show
Episode 5

November 21, 2015
Bad Ronald and Through Naked Eyes

One of my favorite podcast finds of the month is Amanda Reyes, television movie expert and host of The Made for TV Mayhem show. Reyes combines geekdom and scholarship in her always thought-provoking podcast which celebrates a wide array of flicks made for television. I started with her Bad Ronald podcast from a few years back because I found her via a promotional podcast for the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the film.

Warner Archive
October 18, 2018

Bad Ronald Talk with Amanda Reyes of Made for TV Mayhem

This is the podcast which introduced me to Amanda Reyes. In addition to discussing Bad Ronald, she shares lots of interesting insight about TV movies. I love the way she puts the audience for these films in perspective by describing viewing statistics and the options available for home viewers at the time.

Criterion Now
Episode 71
October 26, 2018
RIP FilmStruck

Not many people in my daily life were as gutted as I was when it was announced that the suits at AT&T had pulled the plug on FilmStruck. I found solace online, where there were hundreds of fans as saddened by the loss of this amazing source of cinema as I was. This episode is essentially a reaction to the news and an analysis of what it all means. It was helpful to me as a way to process the loss of a valuable service that brought so much joy to my movie-watching life.

Episode 27

Producer Frank Marshall discusses The Other Side of the Wind

One of the saddest things about losing the FilmStruck service is that it means the cancellation of Alicia Malone’s addictive podcast. She is such an effective interviewer, always drawing out profound observations from her guests, who often seem thrilled to be discussing their material at the deep intellectual and emotional level that she encourages. In her final episode, she discusses The Other Side of the Wind with Frank Marshall, who was invited to work on the production by Peter Bogdanovich. As many of the people who were involved with the movie have died in the years since it was filmed, any firsthand anecdotes about its making are invaluable and Marshall is a great storyteller. If the show has to end, this was a great way to go out.

Fiat Vox/ Berkeley News Podcast
Episode 43
“White voice” and hearing whiteness as difference, not the standard

This episode of the promotional podcast which highlights University of Berkeley programs is a brisk, but often thought provoking five minutes. It explores the Mid-Atlantic accent, a British-flavored way of speaking that was once popular with broadcasters and performers, and how it made a non-regionalized, “white” form of speech the norm.

Switchblade Sisters
August 30, 2018
The Night of the Hunter with Night Comes On Director Jordana Spiro

Film critic April Wolfe has found the perfect combination for a podcast: genre films and lady filmmakers. Each episode is a discussion of a film chosen by the guest. She's spoken to an amazing array of directors, including Anna Biller, Karen Kusama, and Martha Coolidge. The combination of film history knowledge these women possess and their enthusiastic fandom make for fascinating discussions. I’ve loved every episode so far; they’re as varied as the guests and all worth a listen. I suggest starting with the Night of the Hunter ep with Jordana Spiro because it was the first one I tried and it got me excited to listen to the rest.

On DVD: Eleanor Parker in The Last Ride (1944)

Briskly-paced and clocking in at just under an hour The Last Ride (1944) is a moderately entertaining wartime crime programmer. While chiefly of historical interest, it has a little more zing than other flicks of its kind. The film recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive.

Though Eleanor Parker’s image dominates the promotional art, and she is the most lively presence in the film, she is a supporting character in this cops and mobsters drama about the wartime tire bootlegging racket. Richard Harris is Lieutenant Pat Harrigan, an ambitious detective who sets his sights on a gang that sells subpar tires to drivers hit hard by wartime rationing of rubber. His work is complicated by the fact that his brother Mike (Charles Lang) is involved with the criminals, not to mention that they’re both sweet on their foster sister Kitty Kelly (Parker).

What follows is a familiar parade of mob hits, double crosses, and fist fights. With little to distinguish it, it’s oddly more entertaining than you’d expect. This is partly due to the youthful energy of the opening scenes, which crackle with an easy verve missing from the rest of the film. The brief scenes with the charismatic Parker are also especially pleasant; she’s already clearly ready to leave behind girlfriend roles and embrace stardom.

Aside from these enjoyable elements though, there’s a reassuring efficiency to The Last Ride. It can get silly: an earnest conversation about wartime rubber rationing comes off as cheesy and obvious and brings the action to a stop. For the most part though, its footing is sure. This is a strong programmer. It isn’t a must-see, but it delivers on its modest aims.

The disc has no special features.

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.

Quote of the Week: Frank Capra on Drama

I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

– Frank Capra

On Blu-ray: TV Horror Classic Bad Ronald (1974)

For years, being a fan of television movies has meant squinting at faded VHS prints or watching whatever somewhat viewable titles I could find streaming online. I’ve just come to expect that as part of the experience. That’s why one of the most mind-blowing aspects of watching the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of television horror classic Bad Ronald (1974) is simply that it looks sharp, clean, and vivid, in addition to sounding great.

Of course there is more to Bad Ronald than looks. It’s a profoundly creepy film, presented with a sort of cold-hearted efficiency that makes it all the more chilling. It’s hard to believe that this twisted flick was broadcast on prime time television, let alone to the millions of viewers that the Movie of the Week could attract in those days of more limited viewing options.

The titular Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is a misfit teen who lives alone with his over-protective mother (Kim Hunter). When his parents divorced, his father agreed to relinquish all parenting rights to his son in exchange for avoiding child support payments. Without other friends or family, it is these two against the world.

After being rejected and humiliated by the girl he wants to date, Ronald is mocked by her little sister. In the resulting argument, he accidentally kills her. Instead of going to the police, he buries her in a shallow grave. Aware of how poorly Ronald has handled the situation and terrified of losing her son, Mama Jacoby devises a plan to wall up Ronald in the spare bathroom, where he can hide until the heat dies down and they can skip town.

For a while it seems like they will get away with it, but then Mrs. Jacoby dies during gall bladder removal surgery. A new family, with three teenage daughters, moves into the house. Ronald watches them through a hole in the wall, while becoming increasingly unhinged as he pursues his interest in painting to create his own fantasy world in captivity.

One of the most effective things about Bad Ronald is the way it weaves realism into its outrageous premise. It’s hard to believe the family would never discover a teenage boy living in their walls, or even notice the eye-level holes surrounding them, but the way Ronald reacts to the situation rings true. His psychopathic tendencies bloom without social pressure to be otherwise. Unlike many films about captivity, he actually looks like he has been locked up with his paints and decaying trays of food. He’s dirty and greasy; you can almost smell him.

The family that inhabits Ronald’s home also feels real. They’re a group of people too occupied with their busy lives to truly see each other, but still functional and loving. The fights between the sisters are especially authentic, full of screeching and frustration, but always with an underlying feeling of love and belief in each other. Watching these essentially decent people strive for happiness makes the horror within their own walls that much more terrifying.

Ronald is pure horror, but if you read any viewer comments about the film, it’s clear that he is also in some ways relatable. As he sits on the couch nibbling an apple from the side of his mouth like a pensive rat, he inspires both revulsion and sympathy. Everyone has had a social outcast in their lives who fails despite all efforts to fit in. Many of us are that outcast. Just about everyone has had an idea, if even briefly, of how it feels to not fit in. We cringe when Ronald terrorizes a teenage girl or misreads social cues, and we know he must face punishment for his more serious actions, and yet we also understand and feel for him.

Bad Ronald
is a suspenseful, often scary film that works well within the limitations of television horror.

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

Farewell to FilmStruck: My Viewing Suggestions (A Work in Progress)

Speaking in stages of grief, the denial phase lasted a long time for me when I heard that the film streaming service FilmStruck would be no more after 11/29. This beautifully curated site has become invaluable to me as a way to find amazing new movies and learn more about them via a rich array of special features, in addition to being the only way to stream my favorite classics.

The brilliance of FilmStruck was in the programming. Its weekly themed categories were a fantastic way to explore new areas, filmmakers, and stars. I love how they cast a wide net over cinema, including everything from monster movies to the wildest experimental flicks, and just about anything you could imagine in between. It’s also been valuable for the diversity it celebrates, promoting works from different cultures and shining a light on films made by women and people of color.

While I will be able to find most of the titles that were on my 343 deep watchlist at my local library, I will lose the insight and viewing suggestions I gained from the knowledgeable team at FilmStruck. In her essential Slate piece about the demise of the service, Joanna Scutts wrote: “if the only art you see is the kind of art you’ve already heard of, then you’re missing the challenge and the thrill of true discovery.” This is what hurts the most about losing the site.

As I settle into the acceptance phase, I have pared my watchlist down to a still steep, but more manageable 68 films (Some of them are shorts. I can do this!). I’ve decided to share my favorites here in the hopes that those of you who are subscribers may find new cinematic treasures in this last month of a truly magnificent site. Bookmark this post, because I will be adding to it all month:

Update 11/5:

A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973)

The Devils (1971)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Black Lizard (1932)

The Duchess of Idaho (1950)

All Monsters Attack (1969)

Original Post:

Touki Bouki (1973)

I Am Waiting (1957)

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

Lucky Partners (1940)

Le Magnifique (1973)

Madeleine (1950)

Penelope (1966)

The War of the Gargantuas (1966)

The Eternal Return (1943)

On Blu-ray: The Swarm (1978), The Cyclops (1956), The Queen of Outer Space (1958)--Oh My!

I love films that entertain in ways their creators haven't planned. It’s such a happy accident when a story approached with sober intent becomes a little off-kilter, and as a result much more interesting. These kinds of flicks are my bread and butter, because they serve as a constant reminder not to take anything too seriously. That’s a philosophy one should consume daily. A trio of films like these recently made their Blu-ray debut through Warner Archive and I had a blast watching them.

The Swarm (1978)

This bee-blasted epic is the flick that killed the enormously profitable disaster movie industry. Helmed by the granddaddy of the genre, Irwin Allen, it was such a flop that the director refused to ever discuss the film again. Disaster films aren’t known for their sober dramatics, so the fact that this take on large scale chaos is known for being one of the goofiest of the genre is something special.

The Swarm seems to star just about everyone with name recognition who held a SAG card at the time, as was typical for the genre. The massive cast is led by Michael Caine as a scientific expert who is always arching an eyebrow and shouting because he can’t believe how dumb everyone is about bees. He falls for a military doctor played by Katharine Ross, who usually has someone making her life miserable in her films, so she might as well deal with bees. In the midst of the “always constipated” phase of his career, Henry Fonda plays another scientist, though he does demonstrate uncharacteristic warmth for that period. Other names in this astonishing gathering of stars include Richard Chamberlin, Richard Widmark, Ben Johnson, Patty Duke, Jose Ferrer, Lee Grant, Bradford Dillman, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, and Olivia de Havilland.

As an elegant schoolteacher sought after by Johnson and MacMurray, de Havilland perfectly captures the spirit of the film in a notorious moment where she observes the destruction caused by the bees outside the schoolhouse window and slowly turns to utter “ohhhhh” in a deep, guttural moan. It’s how you feel watching the movie and it also encapsulates the tone of the frenzied performances, gigantic bee hallucinations, and sweaty PTSD induced by these furry guys.

For a while it’s a blast. Then the action slows down a bit too much in the second half. However, nothing can erase the chic delight of Olivia’s old Hollywood-style anguish.

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer and the behind-the-scenes documentary Inside the Swarm.

The Cyclops (1956)

This is the kind of movie where a scientist muses, “Now I know I wasn’t imagining things when I thought I saw that giant lizard yesterday” in the same tone he might wonder where he put his car keys. Astonishing things happen, but no one seems to find them all that strange. The titular mono-sighted monster of this kooky sci-fi romp doesn’t make an appearance until minute 45 of its 66 minute running time (though you do get a dramatic blast of “Cyclops vision” before that happens). Before then, in addition to that oversized reptile, you get a glimpse of an enormous bird chomping on a rat, and the feeling that something has gone drastically awry.

Before these astonishing creatures make their appearance, a group of four embarks on an expedition. Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) assembles three men to assist in her search for her missing test pilot fiancé (Duncan Parkin). They are a varied bunch: a scientist (James Craig), a pilot, and a mining expert (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who’s an opportunist with his own extracurricular activities planned for this journey. Those giant creatures, which reached mega-size due to that popular 1950s culprit radiation, change their plans.

Legendary, and that overused term is apt here, voice artist Paul Frees supplies the animal sounds, which are amazing because they fit the beasts, and yet sound precisely human at the same time. You can almost picture him at the microphone, having a wonderful time.

Once the one-eyed wonder appears, he doesn’t speak, instead alternating between groaning and shouting. His abrupt entrance at the mouth of a cave, where he pops up and bellows “RAWR!” is bizarre in the most delightful way. He is in full “get off my lawn” mode, no curiosity, no fear, just pure rage that these people exist. Eventually he adds lust to his repertoire when he spots Susan, though you’ve got to wonder what he plans to do with such a tiny lady. Is this her boyfriend on radiation?

Despite his having no verbal ability, Susan insists on asking a barrage of questions, all of which are answered by a moan and more longing looks. The exchange gives the audience the opportunity to examine the creature’s melted face, crowded, dirty teeth and unblinking marble of an eyeball. The moment ends abruptly, because a snake plops onto the monster’s neck and he slowly begins to wind the confused, but remarkably calm animal around his neck in an attempt to make it look like they are fighting. That limp battle pretty much sums up the spirit of this odd flick.

The Queen of Outer Space (1958)

When I first heard that Zsa Zsa Gabor was the star of this sci-fi flick I thought she was a perfect choice for Queen of Outer Space. It turns out that title goes to Laurie Mitchell, Gabor's actually a scientist, but the kind of scientist who wears evening gowns and a full face of make-up while doing experiments, so she remained on brand. She’s also part of the resistance on her home planet Venus. The entire population is women, because men have been banned, and you know our girl Zsa Zsa wouldn’t stand for that.

Queen of Outer Space begins on Earth, with a group of men embarking on a journey to visit a space station. They have to change course though when the station is destroyed before their eyes. When they land on Venus, the crew is pleased to find themselves surrounded by women in miniskirts and heels. Obviously this script was written by a man, because that would never be a popular costume on a planet with only ladies.

The men find it hilarious that ladies are in control and do everything short of smacking bottoms to show they have no respect for their captors. While most of the women see this as all the more reason to keep men away from Venus, Zsa Zsa and her friends find the men irresistible. The battle of the sexes begins, with warriors in heels pursuing their masculine invaders down starkly, but tastefully decorated corridors, while Gabor and company get as much snoggling time as they can with their new boyfriends.

It’s all very much of its time; some of the men’s lines make you want to throw a rock at the screen, but the high camp feel of it makes up for a lot. It’s also a great looking film. The set design is gloriously artificial and, as impractical as they are, the ladies’ costumes are beautiful as well. There are even some innovations that predict the future, like a flat screen TV with a remote that the queen uses to make video calls.

The disc includes commentary by the Queen of Outer Space herself, Laurie Mitchell. She has a pleasant chat with film historian Tom Weaver. While she doesn’t have any dirt to dish about life on the set, her memories are interesting to hear.

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

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 Great Episodes

In my latest podcast round-up there's a couple of interesting shows that were new to me (both featuring Amy Nicholson) and great episodes from some of my favorites. Episode titles link to the podcast:


Double Indemnity
August 16, 2018

It took me a while to get to it, but I am glad I finally started listening to this intelligent show featuring Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson. These two are working their way through the AFI top 50 films list and their discussions about these films are a great mix of history and analysis. I especially like this episode featuring Billy Wilder’s classic noir. Having crime fiction writer Ed Brubaker on as a guest was a great touch.

The Canon

The Fountainhead
155, May 21, 2018

Another Amy Nicholson show. I love this woman. She knows her movie history and has a thoughtful and original way of discussing cinema. Her voice is also easy on the ears, something which can be make or break with me when it comes to podcasts. Nicholson explores an array of movies, with the goal of determining if they belong in the film canon or in a less lofty place in cinematic history. Here she has a compelling conversation with Larry Karaszewski (screenwriter/Trailers from Hell) about the notorious adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel.

Matlin on the Movies

Norman Lloyd
September 21, 2018

Oh the bliss of listening to Norman Lloyd’s elegant transatlantic accent. He actually talks about that very thing in this lovely interview with Leonard and Jessie Maltin. Lloyd is over 103 now, but his mind seems decades younger as he discusses his career and the remarkable legends of the industry he knew, the most prominent among them: Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. The Maltins are as close as you can get to the Robert Osborne effect these days when it comes to appreciating and understanding interview subjects from the classic age of cinema.

Pure Cinema Podcast

Silent Cinema
August 13, 2018

I’ve been a longtime contributor to Brian Saur’s film list series at his site Rupert Pupkin Speaks and have always appreciated his wide film knowledge and complete lack of pretension when it comes to movies. He and co-host Elric Kane both put out that positive vibe in their epic and hugely informative podcasts, where they discuss favorite films around a certain theme. I especially appreciate their episode about silent film, which is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to explore that period of film, but also holds plenty of fascination for those more familiar with them.

Twenty Thousand Hertz

The Theremin
October 15, 2018

Classic Cartoon Sound Effects
October 1, 2018

This beautifully-produced show about different aspects of sound often has episodes about issues of interest to classic film fans. They were on a roll this month, with two fascinating film-related topics. In one, sound effects artists talk about their favorite, and least favorite, classic cartoon effects and the process of finding and crafting sounds for animated shows. The Theremin episode covers the overall history of this otherworldly musical instrument, but includes lots of references to the films in which it was used, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Spellbound (1945).

Guest Post: Underrated '78 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Click on over to Rupert Pupkin Speaks to see my list of underrated flicks from 1978. It's always a blast to make these lists for Brian Sauer's excellent recommendation site. Be sure to check out the other lists!

On Blu-ray: Underseen Surfing Classic Big Wednesday (1978)

The bittersweet nostalgia of Big Wednesday (1978) feels authentic, because it was made by men who lived it. A story of friendship and loss of innocence set against the backdrop of the 1960s California surfing scene, the film flopped upon its release, though it has developed a cult following over the years. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Director John Milius wrote Big Wednesday with journalist and fellow surfer Denny Aarburg. They based the story on their own teenage experiences indulging in the new 1960s surfing scene. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are Matt Johnson, Jack Barlow, and Leroy “Masochist” Smith respectively, a trio of friends who grow up alongside the ocean, obsessed with waves, girls, and having a good time. The Vietnam War bursts into their idyllic bubble, bringing uncertainty and fear into their lives. Turbulent times and the added responsibilities of adulthood change their lifestyles, but the lure of the surf remains ever present.

Milius creates an innocent world, where despite the drinking, sex, and fist fights, kids are essentially decent and driven by an inborn code of honor. They may not always do what they should, but they understand the difference between right and wrong. Milius films these good-natured teens in golden light, which exposes the wholesome white gleam of their teeth and their perpetually sunburned skin. They live on cheeseburgers, Cokes, and sun.

In a reassuringly maternal performance in what would be her final film role Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) plays Jack’s mother (she was also Katt’s real mother). In her elegant way, she shows an understanding of what these kids are about. In the midst of her son’s party, which rages out of control downstairs, she sits calmly in her room, reading a book. When an apologetic Jack comes to speak to her, she asks that they mind the coffee table, but in staying away from the action, she demonstrates a sort of weariness with all that youthful destruction, but also an essential trust that they won’t go too far.

And Mrs. Barlow is correct. While they ride to the edge of destruction during a wild night in Tijuana and fake injuries and homosexuality to avoid service in Vietnam, the boys also support each other with unwavering devotion, and when it is time to grow up, they each in their own way embrace maturity.

While these relationships, and particularly the friendship between Matt, Jack, and Leroy form the essentially sound emotional core of Big Wednesday, its most impressive moments are in the surf. The camera swoops close to its surfers, going deep into the waves, then shooting back to show the daunting majesty of those walls of water. Peaceful moments of paddling are punctured with the roar of the waves as the water presses in on the surfers. Perhaps there is a war being waged across the world, but nothing beats the power of nature, and in boldly facing that force, these kids bolster their own sense of self.

The lead actors learned to surf for the film, but were doubled by Australian surfing champions Peter Townsend and Ian Cairns, and Bill Hamilton (who is the father of surfing champion Laird Hamilton). Their stunt work, and that of other supporting surfers is jaw dropping. If there is anything that makes this film a classic, it is the tension and wonder of these scenes.

When it comes to surfing, Matt is the most talented of the three, finding a small measure of fame for his laidback control of the board. It hurts him to see new surfing stars emerge as he moves into family life. Though his legend endures and he remains adored by the locals, he never seems to feel satisfied by his legacy. He hasn’t performed the important work of learning to like himself first. Vincent captures Matt’s shame and self-inflicted hurt in one of his most sensitive performances.

Katt is a a more clear-eyed, but also more conventional counterpart to the more rebellious Matt. He feels comfortable working within the system, but also a bit stunned when he does everything right, but still falls short of satisfaction. In a wild performance that is nevertheless more controlled than much of his future work, Busey throws himself into his comic relief role, offering a taste of what was yet to come.

Upon its release, Big Wednesday met with box office failure and mixed critical reception. Some appreciated Milius’ earnest statement, others found it heavy-handed and poorly acted. In the years since, its nostalgia and the stunning impact of the surfing scenes have attracted more positive acclaim.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Milius, a theatrical trailer and the short retrospective documentary, Capturing the Swell (2003).

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

On Blu-ray: An Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Release Rich in Special Features

I just finished binging the new Olive Signature Blu-ray edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Every pore of my body now seems to be packed with some sort of fact about this sci-fi classic. The disc's got special features lengthier than the film itself, and they’re just as fascinating. This is a fine tribute to director Don Siegel’s genre classic.

An amped up version of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatcher, the first screen adaptation is frightening partly because its characters are forced to stay on the run, with little time to consider or think rationally about what is happening to their world. The story of a small town that is flooded with pods which grow replacements for its citizens has been claimed to be an analogy for multiple society ills, but its author’s intent was simply to terrify. It gets the blood pumping because to rest is deadly, but without time to reflect, the fear of the unknown intensifies.

This was a rare starring role for Kevin McCarthy. He would be cast as privileged jerks for much the remainder of his film career, also spending much of his time working in television. It’s a shame he didn’t get to lead more often, because even in a role where there is so little time to learn about his character, he deftly reveals the core of his being and with that jutting chin, his look is pleasingly distinct.

His costar, British actress Dana Wynter, was also rarely a lead in Hollywood films, and like McCarthy found more substantial roles in television. The two are a good intellectual match. As a pair of slightly weary divorcees, they’re both worldly, cool and elegant, with enough emotional maturity to handle the terror they must face.

One of the highlights of the Olive disc is a retro audio commentary featuring McCarthy and Wynter with director Joe Dante. Both actors seem to relish sharing their memories and the clear regard they have for each other is charming. It helps to have Dante there to provide historical context to the conversation.

A new alternate audio commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith is packed with a dizzying array of facts. As usual, Smith ensures that every player gets a bit of the spotlight. The most amusing supporting appearance: future director Sam Peckinpah as a meter reader.

For a movie with such a short running time, there are endless areas to explore here. The rest of the package features a dozen different featurettes, essays, galleries, and the like exploring aspects of the film from where it was shot, to what it all means. There’s a good mix of perspectives, including family members of those in the production and industry experts. The overall effect is like taking a master class about the film.

The high-definition digital restoration is easy on the eyes, with good contrast, but not excessively sharp.

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

On Blu-ray: Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger in The Last Hunt (1956)

Based on a novel by Milton Lott, but featuring real buffalo herd thinning, the Richard Brooks-directed The Last Hunt (1956) is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. It comes from a period where westerns took on more moral complexity. Heroes are less certain, violence isn't as superficial, and a feeling of weariness is in the air. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, with a few vintage special features.

Stewart Granger stars as Sandy McKenzie, a skilled buffalo hunter who is aching to get out of the business. He is dragged back in by the cruel Charlie Gibson (Robert Taylor), who takes pleasure in the killing that increasingly repulses Sandy. Gibson also kidnaps drunken skinner Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) to join them, while Sandy hires the half-native ginger Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn) to skin as well.

They are an efficient team, setting up stands and piling up skins, working as well together professionally as they clash personally. It’s stunning to watch the massive herds of buffalo in their crosshairs. The footage was captured during the annual herd thinning at Badlands National Park and Custer State Park in South Dakota and the energy of the animals is palpable. It makes it all the more brutal to watch these magnificent beasts sink to their knees one at a time, their power extinguished, as the men ambush them.

Gibson doesn’t reserve his killing for animals, murdering a tribe of natives who he believes have stolen his horses. He spares a young woman (Debra Paget) and her child, forcing her to cook for the group. She is resigned to her fate, eventually falling in love with the gentler Sandy.

There’s a deep sense of loss and resignation to The Last Hunt. Sandy, Woodfoot, and Jimmy are all participants in a violent profession, but they are essentially tender. They are disturbed by Gibson’s sadism; his job as much a joy for him as a way to make money. Paget is given little to do in this scenario, but even she has more courage and strength than her captor, making her less passive than she seems at first. Tamblyn gets a little more opportunity to develop his conflicted, mixed-race character, but is also a mostly passive presence.

Taylor is at his best here: grizzled, mean, and yet still a little pretty. He’s nasty, but you can’t look away. That said, Nolan steals the show as a battered, but still joyfully messy character that’s a lot more fun than the rigid men he portrayed for most of his career. He is so uncharacteristically loose and relaxed that he is almost unrecognizable. Granger is a solid presence alongside them. While he not as commanding in his performance, he's appealingly dignified in his pursuit of decency.

It’s a brutal film, but infused with a compelling moodiness which the cast embodies effectively.

Special features on the disc include a pair of TV promo spots for the film, one which includes a brief glimpse of Tamblyn’s incredible tumbling skills. There’s also an original theatrical trailer.

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

Book Review--The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements

The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements
Kristen Hoerl
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

It’s been a turbulent few years in the world and while movies can be a great escape from the chaos, they can also provide a revealing window into the past. Enter The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements, a new book by Kristen Hoerl that examines the ways film and TV have presented the protest movements of the 1960s versus the way they actually played out. It’s an academic, but accessible exploration which includes the distortion and exclusion which has colored audience view of the past.

Hoerl focuses much of her attention on the way television shows of the 1980s like The Wonder Years, Family Ties, and thirtysomething portray the aftermath of the 1960s, but she does dip into movies both of the time and after the fact. She assesses an array of viewpoints, from the of-the-moment Easy Rider (1969) to later popular hits Dirty Harry (1971) and Forrest Gump (1994), which vary widely in their approach to what the decade had to offer.

In a satisfyingly diligent way, Hoerl works consistently to set the record straight, validating the decisions and place of women and people of color in the movement, recognizing those that diverge from the heteronormative, and acknowledging groups that never or rarely get the cinematic treatment. She explores the way the Black Panthers have been misrepresented in popular culture, while also noting the exclusion of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and the Brown Berets from screen narratives. Whether ignored, overly sensationalized, or distorted, these groups are often underserved in favor of promoting a point of view that validates the status quo. Her term for this collective erasure: selective amnesia.

As it critiques the way protest movements have been portrayed in film and television, Bad Sixties serves as a reminder to view media with a critical eye and an awareness of the different perspectives and goals of those who create it. It also reveals a past with many characteristics in common with the present, from the drive to change societal structure to the establishment that scorns dissent.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Village of the Damned (1960)

The greatest thing about the sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned (1960) is that it makes a big impact with simple means. A half dozen blonde wigs, the collective blank stare of a group of children, the mere idea that thoughts could mean the end of your existence. I recently revisited the sci-fi classic on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

George Sanders stars as Gordon Zellaby, an aging professor in a May-December marriage who is delighted when he learns his wife (Barbara Shelley) is pregnant. He is less enthused when he realizes every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant, including virginal residents, and it seems to be connected with a mysterious blackout suffered by the entire population. When all the women give birth to towheaded tykes with psychopathic stares, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong.

Eventually the destructive and seemingly all-powerful nature of the children is revealed. The villagers are at a loss as to what to do, but can hardly get to the point of facing the trouble because they can’t believe such violence has invaded their peaceful village. As creepy as the kids are, the feeling of nowhere being safe is almost as potent.

It is interesting to see Sanders take a break from villainy and even make himself vulnerable. His famous deep purr becomes a rumble of confusion as he works with the villagers to unravel the mystery of these stone-faced children. Of course he could never play anyone lacking intelligence, and that’s the horror of it, because even the most clever mind is in peril if the enemy can read thoughts as these kids can.

Village of the Damned has aged into an interesting phenomenon. It’s been the rightful target of humor over the years: those identical rigidly-styled blond wigs, the robotically formal speech of the children, and the way they all move in a mass like a herd of sheep is almost as hilarious as it is terrifying. The film still elicits chills though. Budgetary limitations meant that the eerie glow of the kid’s eyes in attack mode had to be superimposed over photos and the resulting stillness makes them seem all the more powerful and impenetrable. There’s also the helplessness of the villagers, who do everything the audience would to save themselves. When the characters aren’t stumbling into dark basements or opening the door to strangers in the middle of the night, it is much easier to relate to their fear.

The Blu-ray image is sharp and clear, revealing every unnerving detail. A sole special feature on the disc is commentary by Chronicles of Terror – Silent Screams author Steve Haberman.

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

Streaming Diary: Spooky Films to Stream for Free at Kanopy

Judging from the vibe I’m getting on social media, Halloween season started early for a lot of us in 2018. I usually start binging on horror flicks when October rolls around, but this year, I’ve been at it for weeks already.

This is the first Halloween season I've had access to Kanopy streaming service, which I can use free of charge with my city and county library cards. I write more about the service here.

I’ve always been impressed with the variety on this service. There’s fantastic indies, documentaries, classics, and lots of psychotronic titles. It’s also got a diverse collection of horror films, so I thought I’d share my picks for this most wonderful time of the year:

Start at the beginning with a collection of the best silent horror classics, including the stylistically influential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)the first cinematic take on Dracula (though unofficial): Nosferatu (1922)John Barrymore delighting in getting ugly for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)Conrad Veidt in one of his best early performances in The Hands of Orlac (1924),  and the documentary-style witch flick Haxan (1922).

There’s also an amazing selection of classic horror flicks, among the best are Barbara Steele in Black Sunday (1960)the first, and most faithful, adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)indie classic Carnival of Souls (1962)Boris Karloff in Black Sabbath (1963)lesser-known Bela Lugosi pic White Zombie (1932)Vincent Price in The House on Haunted Hill (1959)and Night of the Living Dead (1968), which just had its 50th anniversary.

For a quirkier take on horror, Roger Corman-produced The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Bucket of Blood (1959) are a perfect double feature.

There’s also a lot of intriguing modern horror films. Of course, on this site “modern” is the seventies: Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are at their best as a grieving married couple in Don’t Look Now (1973)Roman Polanski’s apartment building-set The Tenant (1976) would be a great anxiety-inducing pairing with Rosemary’s Baby (which, alas, is not on Kanopy), Black Christmas (1974) helped set the template for slasher flicks, and Ganja and Hess (1973) is a fascinating experimental take on the vampire flick.

Also check out Britt Ekland and Telly Savalas in Lisa and the Devil (1973), and more Barbara Steele in The Long Hair of Death (1964).

Enjoy the chills!

On Blu-ray: Billy Budd (1962) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

While Billy Budd (1962) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) take widely different approaches to a period milieu, they are both at their best when they spotlight their charismatic performers. The literary-sourced Budd and life-based Bean were recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

I’m generally not fond of the dudes on a ship genre, but Billy Budd has its own rhythm and transcends any genre trappings. I’ve found that my enjoyment of high seas drama depends dramatically on which dudes are aboard and that is one of the strong points of this film based on a stage play drawn from Herman Melville’s final, and posthumously published, work.

Set in 1797, all of the action takes place on a naval vessel where naïve crewman Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) has been taken from a merchant ship to serve. With dreamy eyes and dandelion fluff hair, the crew is baffled by the gentle, optimistic Budd, though they eventually admire his positive perspective. The sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan) feels threatened by Billy’s comfort with and desire to befriend him. He attempts to frame the young man for attempted mutiny, which ends up being deadly on multiple counts.

In his film debut, Stamp makes Billy an almost otherworldly character. He always seems a step removed from the pain and fear that plagues the rest of the crew members. This frightens Claggart, who is perturbed that he can't control him with fear and perhaps a bit disturbed by his attraction to Budd. He is the sort of man who gets an intense thrill from whippings and drawing blood, that this joyful boy should exist in his orbit dampens that erotic charge.

The captain of the ship (Peter Ustinov, who also directs) knows how destructive Claggart is for his men, but he fears Billy more; he could lead the crew to a more lusty mutiny than the master-at-arms. As a disillusioned elderly sailmaker, Melvyn Douglas, wearily watches Budd move towards his doom, though even he can’t see where it all is leading.

Billy Budd hits its stride when it begins to focus on one-on-one conversations. The tension between Ryan and Ustinov, and especially Stamp and Ryan is presented with menacing intimacy. These private moments form the dark core of a story the crew cannot begin to understand, increasing the overall tension. What is expressed stands equal to the repressed fears and desires of all aboard but the innocent Billy.

Special features include an interesting commentary in which director Steven Soderbergh talks with Terence Stamp about his experiences making the film. Perhaps because the pair worked together on The Limey (1999), they have a good rapport and their conversation has a nice flow.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a more comic enterprise. Its humorous success varies, depending on who has the spotlight in this loosely history-based western full of cameos. Director John Huston pulls together some good tall tales, but never weaves them into a cohesive whole.

As the frontier-based Bean, Paul Newman moves from the bad side of the law to impose his own morally-flexible definition of justice. He lusts after the distant star of the stage Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner), falls for a young Mexican girl (Victoria Principal), and tangles with an unruly cast of characters.

Newman is the weakest part of Roy Bean. He doesn’t have the ornery toughness or the comic juice to make his crusty character pop. While the actor could be funny in the right circumstances, he had a bad habit of seeming more amused by himself than the audience. That quality is at its worse here.

A diverse cast of characters take up the slack, in a series of amusing vignettes. Anthony Perkins sets aside his jittery persona in favor of a wry restraint as traveling man of the cloth. Leaning into his gravelly voice, Tab Hunter works against his pretty boy looks as a shifty, but oddly sympathetic outlaw. Most amusing is Stacy Keach as the bandit Bad Bob. No one relishes an over-the-top role like this actor; he looks like he is having the time of the life, which adds to the humor. Roddy McDowall and Ava Gardner also demonstrate reliable ensemble chops as a hapless lawyer and Langtry respectively.

In the end, the mess of stories, punctuated by a scene-stealing black bear, becomes a bit exhausting, but the cameos help to renew interest when the action flags.

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

Book Review--Stuntwomen: The Untold Story

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story
Mollie Gregory
University Press of Kentucky, 2015 (paperback 2018)

Having missed it upon its initial release, I was delighted to have the chance to catch up with Mollie Gregory’s thorough and fascinating Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which recently came out in paperback. The book, which covers the history of stuntwomen in Hollywood from the beginning of the industry to the present day reveals the unsung heroines of the profession and their struggles fighting for rights, jobs, and respect in a field known for cronyism and sexism.

For most of the history of Hollywood, stuntwomen have had to work hard to win jobs, but it didn’t start that way. In the silent era, where there was little framework for the profession, stunts were performed by adventurous, athletic women like Helen Gibson, who threw themselves into the work with little training or guidance. There was a special freedom to being a daredevil behind the wheel of a car or stunting on a motorcycle or the back of a horse when in the early days of film these women didn’t even have the right to vote.

When the industry became a full-fledged business in the 1920s though, women were shoved aside. In addition to the female directors and producers who found themselves replaced by men, stuntwomen were put out of work in favor of men in wigs. Performers of color also found themselves out of luck, with painting down white stuntmen a common practice on film sets. Despite these roadblocks, new trends in the industry, such as the rise of blaxploitation flicks and the increasing numbers of action-based television shows in the 70s, led to more demand for performers, which with the addition of activism and organization began to turn the tide for stuntwomen.

It took decades of fighting for women to find their place in the boy’s club of stunt work. In addition to sexual harassment, replacement by men for female roles, and closed hiring practices, women who did find work were held to higher standards. If a man made a mistake, he was forgiven. If a woman faltered, she was deemed unqualified for the job.

The same held true for outspoken women. Julie Johnson was one of the best stuntwomen in the business and one of few to win a coveted stunt coordinator job. However, when she demanded higher safety standards for her performers on the set of Charlie’s Angels, her contract with the show was not renewed. This led to a lengthy, dispiriting court battle in which the principled Johnson endured brutal treatment, but brought much needed attention to the plight of stunt people and women in particular in the industry.

Gregory covers these struggles in detail, but she also consistently focuses on the joy of the profession. These women fought and continue to fight for better conditions and more access to jobs because they are passionate about performing stunts. In several stunt performer profiles, Gregory shares the many ways these women enjoy the thrill of this physical, risky, and rewarding work.

The result is an entertaining and intriguing work, with a rich history buoyed by thrilling on-set stories and a wide array of struggle and triumph.

Gregory's book is also being adapted into a documentary, which will be narrated by Michelle Rodriguez. 

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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