On Blu-ray: The Vibrant Casts of Home From the Hill (1960) and Never So Few (1959)

Sometimes, no matter what other elements are at play, the pure starpower of the actors onscreen dominate a film. The biggest draw of Never So Few (1959) and Home From the Hill (1960) is the unusual composition of their casts. Both have a fascinating, somewhat off-kilter mix of old and new Hollywood. They are also each dominated by by men, Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum respectively, who are driven by their own passions, with little regard for the rules. I recently watched both on new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive.

Never So Few could be half as good and still intrigue, because the cast is an astonishing mix of talent. Frank Sinatra plays a World War II army captain fighting the Japanese in Burma. Among his men: Charles Bronson, Richard Johnson, Dean Jones, and Steve McQueen. Add to this crazy mix of talent love interest Gina Lollobrigida (in her first Hollywood film), Paul Henreid, Peter Lawford and, briefly, Brian Donlevy. Though less famous to US audiences, Philip Ahn is also quietly commanding as the local Kachin people’s leader and Sinatra’s strongest ally. It took me a while to get into the action, because it seemed like everywhere you looked, another great actor popped up.

The action alternates between Japanese ambushes and plush party and nightclub scenes, never going too deep into either, with the tense battle scenes having the most excitement. Lollobrigida and Sinatra have a romance, but it doesn’t sizzle, and is even a bit indifferent. While he brings a great weary spirit of rebellion to the role, it was hard for me to accept the slender, almost frail crooner as a tough army captain. Interactions between the men are more lively, with Bronson settling more firmly into his tough guy persona and Jones seeming to relish a quirkier, darker role than he would have in the Disney flicks that brought him fame. Henreid and Donlevy add old Hollywood dignity in a great contrast to all that youthful energy.

The hottest element of Never So Few is McQueen, who is clearly ready for stardom. He gets the chance to show off his action chops and foreshadow all those great motorcycle and car chases with a little racy driving in his Army Jeep. Apparently Sinatra was impressed by the young actor and asked director John Sturges to give him good angles and exposure.

Home From the Hill is a more melodramatic production, though it has plenty of battle scenes of a different nature and even some shocking moments of violence. Robert Mitchum stars as a randy small town Texan who must be crazy because he constantly cheats on lovely Eleanor Parker, who plays his wife. While dodging the bullets and barbs of angry husbands, he despairs over his hapless son (George Hamilton) and grudgingly accepts the stronger bond he has with another, illegitimate son (George Peppard).

This is one of those small town dramas where polite society exists on a tightrope and everyone is on the verge of exploding from repressed anger or passion, and sometimes both. At 150 minutes, it takes longer than it needs to to make its point, but it keeps a good pace. While the subject matter is sensational, it never drifts into camp as this kind of story can. Amidst all the sex, violence, adultery and illegitimate pregnancy, there’s a tragic story and the gravity of that tale is given its due respect.

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

Streaming Diary: 7 Films to Watch on FilmStruck

There’s a darn good reason why so many classic film fans are raving about FilmStruck. I’ve never had so much fun working my way through the offerings of a streaming service. Curation is the key here. Everything is carefully selected, with a balance between artistic statement and pure sensation. Meaning: there’s always something I want to watch because the selection covers so many genres, styles and moods.

That said, the number of films available can be a bit daunting. What to watch? Here are some of my favorites:

Penelope (1966)

Everybody is in love with Natalie Wood in this comedy caper. She plays a bored banker’s wife who robs his new bank in disguise to make up for the lack of attention from her career-obsessed spouse (Ian Bannen). It’s a playful take on a lady with an odd neurosis: she steals without guilt and it is her most profound joy. Her love-stricken therapist (a rare juicy screen role for Dick Shawn) is in dismay that the woman of his dreams is so happily devious. As a detective on the case, Peter Falk hesitates to do his job because he is so charmed by this clever criminal. Depravity is always best played with a smile.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

Before there were multiple versions of A Star as Born and the films it inspired, Constance Bennett played a waitress who was lifted to stardom in much the same way Esther Blodgett and her other cinematic sisters would be. This time the mentor (Lowell Sherman) is a friend, rather than a lover, but the relationship is just as moving. The story glides along with that perfect pre-code efficiency that would fade away in the decades to come. It is never pulled under by its melodramatic elements and plays with visuals in a then innovative and artistically appealing way.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The perfectly executed dialogue in this lively adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s stage play about deception and romance is as butter smooth as leading lady Joan Greenwood’s sexy purr. Every line is a dry-witted zinger. The posh setting of the elite is like a playground for its well-tuned cast of players, which also includes Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, and the haughtily perfect Margaret Rutherford. For all its pretty costumes and classy milieu, it is ridiculously sexy, which accounts as much for how entertaining it is as much the witty barbs.

Petulia (1968)

This drama of a battered society wife who finds solace with a kind doctor is heartbreaking, but also filled with the purest love. That’s why I have subjected myself to its trauma so many times. Julie Christie has made a career of devastating her audience, and here she is at her most endearing and tragic. It’s unsettling to see the volatile George C. Scott in the role of a gentle savior, but that complexity is what makes his performance fascinating. Richard Chamberlin and Joseph Cotten are effectively horrifying as they demonstrate the entitlement and uncontrollable fury of abusive men. This isn’t an easy watch, but it is essential.

The Wicked Lady (1945)

I enjoy Margaret Lockwood as a heroine, but that precisely pointed nose and cloud of dark hair, punctuated by a perfectly situated beauty mark, are best suited to villainy. Here she embraces her femme fatale side, stealing a husband, then some jewels, committing a little murder, and enchanting fellow thief James Mason in the process. You know she’s evil, but the people she scams are so dull and self-righteous you can’t help cheering her rebellion.

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong plays a scrappy night club dancer in this silent that showcases the eternally cool actress the way she should have been presented in Hollywood. While Wong was capable of playing vulnerable, she was at her best as she is here: bold, clever, and unapologetically ambitious. She’s also glam in a metallic Chinese costume, dancing in the light of four pre-disco disco balls.

Evergreen (1934)

The perfect antidote to a bleak mood. Jessie Matthews demonstrates just why she was the golden gal of classic British musicals. If Fred Astaire wanted to work with her, you know she had to be great. Here she plays an Edwardian era musical hall singer, in an adaption of a role she played on the stage. With a uniquely bright-eyed appeal, she’s a star, but also endearingly humble. A surreal and wonderfully bizarre futuristic number gives all that sunshine a Busby Berkeley-style edge. She’s even better in First A Girl (1935), which is well worth tracking down.

On Blu-ray: Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway in Supergirl (1984)

The 1984 production of Supergirl has always felt like a missed opportunity to me. It has its moments, but suffers from a weak script and story. However, though it was a box office and critical bomb upon its release, it will nevertheless forever be a showcase for Helen Slater’s charming first screen performance. It also benefits from a small, but intriguing turn by Peter O’Toole and the scenery-chomping theatrics of Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, and the slightly more understated Brenda Vaccaro. I recently had a chance to revisit the movie on the newly released, feature-packed Blu-ray from Warner Archive which includes the original theatrical release and the director’s cut of the film.

Supergirl begins in Argo City, the refuge of those who survived the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. There Kyra (Slater) lives with her parents Zor-El (Simon Ward) and Alura (Mia Farrow). She is fascinated by the magical work of the scientist Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) which gets her in trouble when she launches herself into space via one of his creations. This is how she ends up on Earth, living incognito as boarding school student Linda Lee.

It doesn’t take long for power-mad sorceress Selena (Dunaway) to discover her presence. With the help of her evil sidekicks Nigel (Cook) and Bianca (Vaccaro), she is relentless in her quest to exploit Kara’s power so that she may rule the world.

In her screen debut, Slater showed promise that she has never entirely had the chance to fulfill. Upon its release, some critics found her performance bland, but I enjoyed her understated, humble approach to the role. Slater's inexperience lends her an appealing freshness. 

The pure joy of the scene where Kara/Supergirl discovers she can fly feels more potent because she really is a young performer experiencing a new kind of power. She approaches that moment with a quiet wonder not commonly found in a comic book flick. There’s a serenity to her that makes you lean in, as if to take in the magic she is experiencing.

The love interest is played by Hart Bochner, a dim-witted doofus so charisma deficient that it never makes sense that Linda/Kara would fight for him. Her friendship with O’Toole is more intriguing. In their brief scenes together, they take the action to a different emotional level, where a great actor seems to be recognizing a genuine emerging talent and taking her under his wing.

Supergirl suffers the most from its rambling script and essentially aimless plot. There’s never a sense of real peril, just a bit of toe tapping until you get to the next special effects scene. Those effects, while sometimes showing their age, are generally visually exciting and sometimes surreally beautiful. Dunaway, Cook and Vaccaro also draw some campy fun out of their villain roles. In the end though, it never becomes a cohesive whole.

This was the rare occasion where I was much more inspired by the disc’s special features than the film. I was mesmerized by the vintage documentary The Making of Supergirl, which featured the most pleasantly entertaining behind-the-scenes footage I’ve ever seen. This is mostly due to Slater, who is humble, clever, and game for anything her once-in-a-lifetime role. You can see why the filmmakers cast her and how hopeful they must have been that she would headline a new, successful franchise.

In addition to a rare director’s cut of the film, features on the two-disc set includes commentary by director Jeannott Szwarc and special project consultant Scott Michael Bosco and a theatrical trailer.

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

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 More Great Episodes

I'm back with 6 more great podcast episodes for classic film fans! I was delighted to find a few new-to-me shows, in addition to enjoying more fascinating material from my favorites:

Talking Um...Uh... Jimmy Stewart
Episode 9
Kim Novak, ‘Vertigo’ (1958), ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ (1958)

The Jimmy Stewart Museum in the actor's hometown of Indiana, PA has a lovely podcast, hosted by Tim Vanderburg. All of the episodes are worth a listen, as there are great guests, including former co-stars, family, and one of his biographers, and other archival treats like a series of rare interviews with Stewart. I was most touched by this interview with Kim Novak though, where she discusses her loving professional relationship with Stewart. I especially enjoyed the story about how they reunited to present at the Oscars one year and the actor picked her up like they were going to the prom, even presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.

Noir Talk
Episode 12
Film noir before it was famous with Foster Hirsch

It's hard for to imagine a world before film noir. The cinematic style is so popular and such an integral part of movie making. Everything has to start somewhere though, and here author Foster Hirsch discusses his book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (1981) one of the first to be published about noir and how it wasn't an easy sell for publishers at first. In addition to describing his own journey with noir, Hirsch shares an interesting history of the form.

The Nod
March 5, 2018
Josephine and The Amazing Technicolor Rainbow Tribe

The Nod is one of my favorite cultural podcasts. Hosts Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings are brilliant at tackling complex subjects with compassion and good humor. While they often focus on current issues in black life, there is also a deep historical element to the podcast. I was delighted to hear their telling of the story of actress/singer Josephine Baker and the multi-cultural crew of children she adopted, because it was new to both of them, so they share a sense of wonder and disbelief in the telling. They interview one of Baker's children and explore the meaning and impact of her so-called "Rainbow Tribe" in a compelling way.

The Movies That Made Me
August 21, 2018 Allison Anders 
July 30, 2018 Illeana Douglas

This is the new official podcast for Trailers From Hell. It launched over the summer and it is already one of my favorites. Host Josh Olson and occasional co-host Joe Dante are so knowledgeable and they pick fascinating guests. I loved their wide-ranging conversation with director Allison Anders, which features a great discussion about two directors she admires: Ida Lupino and Anthony Mann. 

Make the Illeana Douglas episode your next stop: her list of top film picks is full of unusual, intriguing titles and they have a hilarious discussion about off-kilter DVD commentaries.

The Noir Factory
Case 20
Ida Lupino: Hollywood Legend

Steven Gomez's Noir Factory is a "fictional detective agency," with every episode a new "case" in the world of film noir. This episode is a great introduction to actress/director Ida Lupino. Gomez has a wonderfully personable podcasting style; as a longtime Ida fan there wasn't much that was new to me here, but it was such a pleasant listen.

For more great film podcasts, check out my previous posts:
Part One, Part Two

Top 30 Classic Movie Blogs on Feedspot

I just learned this morning that Feedspot has compiled a Top 30 list of classic movie sites. I'm honored to be included, because I am in great company. If you are looking for other places to indulge in your classic movie love, this is the perfect way to find a new favorite. There's a lot of knowledge, passion and fine writing to be found on this list.

It's encouraging to see there is appreciation out there for classic films and those who keep their legacy alive.

A Classic Movie Blog: Now on Instagram!

I invite you all to follow the new Instagram account for A Classic Movie Blog:


In addition to being a great way to keep tabs on the site, this is the spot for gorgeous classic film-related photos and other bits of fun. So far I've had a blast sharing these amazing images. Come join me!

On DVD: Pier Angeli in Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951)

Though she never emerged as a major star, the Italian-born Pier Angeli made a mark on Hollywood with a persona that combined serene self-assurance and melancholy. Here in her Hollywood debut, she plays the titular role of Teresa (1951), a post-WWII drama about Philip (John Ericson), a baby-faced soldier who courts and marries the young Italian, who then comes to America with him after the war. While the story is for the most part about his struggles during and after his military service, the ads for the film feature Angeli, and for good reason. She is the heart and blazing star of this intimate production now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Teresa begins in the midst of World War II, where Philip is so overwhelmed by fear that he cannot fulfill his duties as a soldier. He is mentored by the more seasoned Sergeant Dobbs, played by Ralph Meeker with more depth than his lines offer on the page. He makes you want to ditch Philip and see what untold tales linger behind those knowing eyes.

Philip meets Teresa, a tender-hearted local villager, and quickly charms her and her family. They are married after the war and following a brief separation, are reunited in America. There they find new worries as Philip’s mother (Patricia Collinge) cannot endure her baby boy marrying, and a foreigner no less. She tortures Teresa with criticism while her weary husband (Richard Bishop) and friendly daughter (Peggy Ann Garner) run interference as best they can.

The screenplay is by Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern, and much like in that film, the characters here are approached with sympathy and acceptance for their flaws. Their weaknesses are made clear, but so is their loneliness and vulnerability.

Collinge is a monstrous mother. It’s clear that her smothering is the root of Philip’s troubles and yet Stern takes you into her broken heart. She has destroyed her family, but not out of malice. Her fears have taken over and she is as much a victim as anyone.

Teresa was John Ericson’s first film for MGM. It is one of a handful of features he would make for the studio before decamping to television for the bulk of his career. He manages to draw some gentle appeal out of an often aggravating character, though you do sometimes wonder if Teresa made the right decision.

It is Angeli who brings life to Teresa though. Still a teenager, she has the emotional grounding and fresh-faced allure that Ingrid Bergman exuded in her early films. In direct contrast to Philip, her Teresa is wise beyond her years, innocent, but aware enough that leering soldiers are to be avoided and that her overprotective brother need not worry so much about her. Unlike Philip, her mother has allowed her to mature and the war has taken care of the rest. 

It’s a performance that should have led to a bigger career. Watching Angeli glow her way through the simplest of scenes inspires longing for more of her magic. It is a bittersweet taste of what could have been.

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.

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