Book Review: A Biography of the Woman Who Designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
Mallory O'Meara
Hanover Square Press, 2019

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, known as the Gill-man is one of the most beloved movie monsters, but few know that its design was created by a woman, artist Milicent Patrick. Film industry professional Mallory O’Meara found this unacceptable and set out to tell the story of this pioneering woman in creature design. Her book The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is a fascinating combination of biography and memoir which gives this remarkable artist her due and questions how far Hollywood has come in its perception of women.

Patrick wore many hats in her career. In addition to designing creatures, she was one of the first woman animators at Disney, a modestly successful film actress, and a makeup artist. While she managed to do well in all these fields, her greatest talent was drawing with skill and imagination. She was so good that when she showed Universal make-up department head Bud Westmore her drawings while she was she was sitting in the make-up chair one day, he was inspired to hire her on the spot, make her the first woman to work for a major studio as a make-up designer.

While Patrick would be best known for creating the frightening, but sympathetic Gill-man creature, she had her hand in other projects, such as the creation of the bobble-headed Metaluna Mutant for This Island Earth (1955). She showed all signs that she would have a long, creative career, but it was not to be. Ironically, the man who gave her big break would be the one to end her design career.

While Westmore could spot talent, he was not a nice man. As a department head he was notorious for cruel behavior, employee harassment and jealousy. He wanted credit for all the work completed by his department and the Gill-man was no exception.

When the Universal Studios publicity department decided the novelty of a glamorous, poised woman like Patrick designing such a horrifying creature made her a perfect fit for a publicity tour for the film, Westmore was furious. Though she deserved credit for her design work, he didn’t want to give it to her. Though she was eventually allowed to go on the tour with strict orders from her boss to give him full credit for the design, audiences and media still gave her credit and he was furious. When she returned from the tour, she had lost her job and since Westmore’s brothers had a lock on the make-up design trade in Hollywood, she had also lost her career.

Patrick seems to have taken this injustice in stride, likely accepting it as a normal occurrence for the age, but O’Meara takes on the rage for her. She not only exposes the many ways in which Milicent has been denied credit for her work and the infuriating details of how she lost her career, but she has correlated those issues with the sexist behavior she has encountered in her own work in the film industry.

In addition to connecting her own stories to those of Patrick, O’Meara shares the frustrations and complications of trying to find information about the artist and her career. Without her own story, there wouldn’t be enough material about Milicent to fill a whole book, but the inclusion of O’Meara’s quest to save Patrick from obscurity and her own professional struggles give the story a depth and meaning that goes beyond the artist's personal story, while also perfectly placing it in historical context.

The result is a lively parallel narrative of a gifted woman who thrived despite the indignities she suffered and another gifted woman determined to make things better by standing up both for herself and a fellow creative nearly lost to the past.

Milicent Patrick and her Gill-man (Image Source)

On Blu-ray: Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter in the Boxing Noir The Set-Up (1949)

The rough-edged boxing noir The Set-up (1949) is notable for starring two of the best movie villains, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, as a loving married couple. It’s nice to see them be the good guys for once in a film where the rest of the world feels rotten to the core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Ryan is Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime whose wife (Totter) is desperate for him to stop fighting before he destroys himself. His manager also sees how damaged his client has become, but tries to use it to his advantage by telling a gangster the fighter will take a dive in his next bout. He doesn’t bother to tell Stoker about the deal, because he assumes he will lose.

The Set-up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem novella of the same name about an aging African-American boxer. According to Wise, a white actor was cast because at the time there wasn’t a black star with the stature to star in the film. As Robert Ryan had boxed in college, he was thought to have the skills necessary to convincingly play a boxer.

The film is notable for running in real time, which makes the action feel immediate and true-to-life. That trait is emphasized by a street clock that marks the time at the beginning and the end of the film. It is a characteristic at the heart of film noir: life can change on you very quickly and without warning.

There’s excellent attention to detail here, from the grimy feel of the Thompson’s hotel room to the cauliflower ears sported by the boxers. It’s an airless, sweat-stained milieu full of characters grabbing for what riches they can get, because the minute they stepped into the game, the clock started ticking on their self-destruction.

As Stoker’s worried wife, Totter painfully embodies the grief of a woman well aware of that inevitable decline. She loves him so much that she has gotten to the point that she can’t watch him crumble anymore, a decision he views as a lack of support or even the end of their love. With all the corruption around them, their fight to find each other becomes the core of the film and gives it heart.

This was one of director Robert Wise’s favorite early films, and for good reason. He makes a lot of a spare setting and a bleak situation, creating a compelling and in some ways hopeful story in the process.

Special features include separately recorded commentaries by Marin Scorsese and Robert Wise which are a carryover from the DVD release.

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

On Blu-ray: Bette Davis at Her Best in William Wyler's The Letter (1940)

I’ve always viewed the films that Bette Davis made with director William Wyler as an emotionally charged conversation between actress and filmmaker. There’s something precise about the cinema they made together, as if they are trying to achieve the perfect mix of the authentic and the dramatic. You can sense it in Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but I’ve found that mood most intense in The Letter (1940), which just made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novel, the story of a married woman living on a far east plantation who kills her lover first came to the screen in 1929 as one of the few movie performances of troubled stage actress Jeanne Eagels. Her performance remains remarkable today for its intensity. She doesn’t seem intimidated or restrained by the camera and microphone and somehow makes a playing to the rafters performance work on film. Her stilted costars look like they’re in another world. She’d first performed the role on the stage and seemed to have carried her interpretation to Hollywood intact. It’s a theatrical take, but it’s drawn from real, raw fury.

Davis’ take on Leslie Crosbie seems to have been somewhat inspired by Eagels intensity, but she finds power in repressing her anger at being trapped on a plantation, ignored by her husband, with nothing to do but obsessively make lace. She doesn’t feel guilty about committing adultery and murder, because in her mind, she had no choice but to find ways to entertain herself. She acts as if the true betrayal is by her lover for leaving her alone again.

This is not Leslie’s world though, and while the court is firmly on the side of the white upper classes, her lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) will see that justice is served. In classic Hollywood, even a rich white lady can’t get away with sinning in the end. As opposed to Eagels, who is defiant in her undying love for the man she murdered, Davis’ Leslie is tortured, and on a certain level realizes she will never have a moment of peace without him. It is possible that revenge is a welcome distraction for her.

Wyler and Davis fought hard about how the complicated Ms. Crosbie should be portrayed and the result is a ferociously executed performance that reflects that passion. These two have long been my favorite director and actress combo, because the turmoil of their fiery, but ultimately productive onset battles never fails to translate in some way to the screen. It is lively filmmaking which transcends the essentially orderly nature of making movies in the studio age.

The Blu-ray image is clear and clean without being too sharp. Special features on the disc include two different radio productions of the story starring Davis and her costar in the film Herbert Marshall. There is also a theatrical trailer.

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

On TCM--Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers, TCM is premiering the documentary, Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers on November 6. Drawing upon never before heard interviews from the ASC archives, the film aims to take viewers in to the minds of the greatest early cinematographers.

Image Makers is an essentially straightforward exploration of the work and methods of these craftsmen from silent pioneers W.K.L. Dickson, Billy Bitzer, and Charles Rosher to early sound innovators like William Daniels and Karl Struss. German Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund get their due, as well as innovators like Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe who took cinematography to a higher artistic plane.

Experts including Leonard Maltin and cinematographer Rachel Morrison weigh in, but it is film historian Kevin Brownlow who most effectively communicates the wonder and technical craft these filmmakers brought to their profession. Brownlow’s delight in discussing the topic, which at one point even moves him to tears, inspires a palpable joy which gives life to an otherwise fascinating, but by-the-numbers production.

It can often be forgotten that cinematographers had as many challenges as performers and sound technicians when talkies began to dominate. Image Makers addresses that transition and acknowledges the contributions of cinematographers like Struss who got the camera moving again after recording limitations rendered it immobile.

I most appreciated how thoroughly the film gives cinematographer James Wong Howe his due. A profoundly talented artist and technician, Howe molded his profession as he adapted to decades of innovations, from the beginning of sound films to the birth of Technicolor. It was especially gratifying to see his masterwork Hud (1963) given the attention it deserves for the way it elevated a Hollywood product to a deeply moving work of art.

Images: The Adventures of Americas Pioneer Cinematographers premieres on TCM on November 6 at 8:00 pm ET.

On Blu-ray--A Horror Trio: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), and From Beyond the Grave (1973)

I ended my October horror binge with a trio of unusual horror films recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Not a bad way to close out the month.

The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1966)

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this oddly-paced, eccentric horror comedy about a pair of vampire hunters. It's unique and funny in a low-key way, but for long stretches it bumbles along as if it has gotten lost. The fantastic cast helps, led by director Roman Polanski and Jack MacGowran (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and featuring Sharon Tate in an essentially thankless role which she elevates with her unique charisma (she was born for film) and glowing beauty. The frightened villagers are fascinating with their realistically wind burned faces, a dramatic contrast to the glamorous vampires living in the estate up the hill. The film is at its best when it plays with the conventions of vampires, introducing what has to be the first openly gay cinematic neck drainer and a Jewish vampire who gets a belly laugh out of a damsel wielding a cross which obviously has no effect on him. A spookily hip soundtrack by Chris Komeda suits the slightly scary, mostly goofy feel of the film.

Special features include a theatrical trailer and a very silly making-of featurette The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

In this television horror fantasy classic Kim Darby plays a lonely housewife who has just inherited her grandmother’s lavish, but run down mansion. Going against the advice of a handyman who has long worked on the estate (William Demarest in full Uncle Charlie mode), she opens up a bolted door on the side of a bricked up fireplace releasing a trio of pumpkin-headed goblins who constantly whisper her name and scatter in a symphony of screams whenever they are exposed to bright light. 

They want to drag her into the nether regions of the house as thanks for her releasing them, though it’s confusing because sometimes they also say they want to attack her. It’s an odd film; sometimes it’s laughably silly, but then suddenly you’re thrust into bone-rattling terror. 

I’m not fond of Darby. While I recognize her skill as an actress, something about her has always irritated me. As a result, my sympathy wasn’t with her as intended and I often found myself wishing the little guys would drag her away to put her out of her misery. Still, the slow-building tension is effective, and when you view it as an allegory reflecting the aimlessness imprisonment of life as a 1970s housewife, it becomes more poignant. 

It’s easy to see why this traumatized so many children who stayed up past their bedtimes decades ago. As with Warner Archive’s release of Bad Ronald, it’s also a rare delight to see an older television film with such a sharp clear image.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Steve “Uncle Creepy” Carton, Jeffrey Reddick and Sean Abley and another excellent new commentary by television film expert Amanda Reyes, who talks about a lot more than the film, placing it in context within the world of 1970s TV movies.

From Beyond the Grave (1973)

In this omnibus film from British studio Amicus Productions, Peter Cushing is quietly ghoulish as an antique shop proprietor who seems to have the supernatural ability to curse people who trick or steal from him. He works his dark magic on ill-gotten goods including a mirror, a military medal, a carved wooden door, and a snuff box. The fate of each of the dishonest people in possession of these items is revealed in separate episodes. A remarkable cast, including Margaret Leighton, Ian Bannen, and the wearily middle-aged, but still glamorous Diana Dors does much for this low budget horror flick. The best sequence features Donald Pleasance and his magnetically eerie daughter Angela Pleasance, playing a father and daughter in a cautionary tale with the otherworldly haze of a fairy tale.

The only special feature is a theatrical trailer.

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

Book Review: David O. Selznick's Secretary Dishes the Dirt Under a Veil of Fiction in I Lost My Girlish Laughter

I Lost My Girlish Laughter
Jane Allen with Jane Shore
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Vintage, 2018 (Random House, 1938)

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood. 

Jane Allen is the pen name of Silvia Schulman Lardner, a diligent woman who toiled in the administrative departments of RKO and MGM, but clearly got the most inspiration from working as the top man’s personal secretary at Selznick International. It was a lot of fun to read this long forgotten book which captures the spirit of a unique time and an unpredictable business with a screwball sense of comedy.

Though Schulman never got credit for her influence on Selznick’s greatest productions, she had a hand in the development of films like A Star is Born (1937) and perhaps most notably convinced her boss to purchase the rights to Gone with the Wind (1939) after reading the book’s galleys. She also tried to make her own mark as a writer, co-writing the play Adam Had Three Eves with Barbara Keon in 1935. Selznick bought the rights, but never produced it.

Eventually, Schulman married writer Ring Lardner Jr. and left Hollywood in 1937. A year later she collaborated on I Lost My Girlish Laughter with screenwriter Jane Shore, wondering all the while if she was revealing too much. 

It is the story of a well-educated single woman who comes to Hollywood looking for work. She gets more than she bargained for when she takes on the job of secretary for super producer Sidney Brand. Told in letters, telegrams, and of course, given the inspiration, memos, this is a light, if not thoroughly loving take on the movie industry.

More amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, it is nevertheless an entertaining book. Schulman creates a lively gallery of buffoons and kooks, with obvious takes on the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Paulette Goddard, super-agent Leland Hayward, Louella Parsons, and her own husband Lardner. 

While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

While there were rumblings that I Lost My Girlish Laughter would be adapted for the screen, that project never materialized. To the loss of us all, Schulman retired from writing. She became the mother of two, and worked as an interior designer and building contractor. That said, the one book she had in her was as good as a lifetime of writing.

Many thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Round-up

Here's this month's round-up of great podcast episodes for classic film fans. Got a great podcast to share? Even your own? Let me know!

Decades of Horror: The Classic Era
Episode 64
Viy (1967)

I love the concept of this series of podcasts produced by Gruesome Magazine: a decade-by-decade exploration of horror films. I’m currently working my way through their 1970s series, but I especially appreciate their coverage of classic Hollywood horror. This conversation about Viy (1967), the Russian horror film, taps into its unique mix of chills, humor, and folk tale style.

San Francisco Chronicle: Datebook
Judy Garland and "Judy," with Tony Bravo, Connie Champagne and Lara Gabrielle Fowler
October 2, 2019

I enjoyed this deeply touching discussion about recent biopic subject Judy Garland and the film starring Zellweger. Connie Champagne has made a name for herself portraying Garland in various venues and Lara Gabrielle Fowler has written about the star on her excellent blog Backlots. The most interesting moments are when they discuss Judy herself, sharing moments from her varied career, analyzing the vulnerability at the core of her appeal and talking how her work has affected their lives personally.

Collider Conversations: The Deep Cut with John Roche
Alicia Malone


TCM host and author (among many other things) Alicia Malone talks about inclusivity in film, the history of women directors of Hollywood and her own struggles to work with her introversion as a public figure. Malone has always been a great advocate for increasing diversity in all aspects of the film industry and she speaks about that interest with great eloquence here. It was also interesting to hear her talk about her journey to becoming a TCM host, including the audition process.

The Film Scene with Illeana Douglas
Pamela Green and Be Natural Documentary9/26/2019

Illeana Douglas talks about the career of Alice Guy Blache, and the challenges of telling her story, with Pamela Green director of a new documentary about the filmmaker Be Natural.

Maltin on Movies
Robert Forster
August 26, 2016

This is one of the first episodes of Maltin on Movies I heard and it remains one of my favorites. The dearly departed Robert Forster is so kind, funny, and no nonsense in this career-spanning conversation with Jessie and Leonard Maltin. His John Huston impression is hilarious and perfect.

On Blu-ray: John Ford's Wagon Master (1950)

It says a lot about the kind of actors director John Ford cast when his supporting players are as good at carrying a film as stars like John Wayne. In the 1950 film Wagon Master, actors and stuntmen Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. shine at a different wattage than Wayne, but they are nevertheless charismatic, funny, and as delightful rising from the ranks to take the lead. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive which beautifully displays its stunning Utah and Arizona valley locations.

Johnson and Carey, Jr. play the new wagon masters of a train of Mormons who have been previously led by another familiar Ford stock player Ward Bond. Over the course of their journey they pick up a bedraggled troupe of medicine show players dying of thirst. They begin to get acquainted, with friendships and romances blooming, until a band of violent thieves called the Cleggs, who were introduced in an at the time innovative opening credit sequence, force themselves into the group.

This familiar plot, which could easily be the bones for a mediocre film, becomes profound because of Ford’s touch. His knack for perfectly casting every part comes in handy here, where he is counting on the strength of the ensemble instead of star power to tell his story. In addition to his pleasantly familiar leads, he draws on the talents of reliable characters like Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Alan Mowbray, and Jane Darwell, and emerging stars like future Gunsmoke lead James Arness. He then places them against that jaw dropping scenery, drinking in the majesty of it all with long, loving long shots which give weight and a sense of wonder to their journey.

There is not as much at stake here, or as strong a feeling of peril or loss as in Ford’s more celebrated classics like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The gut-wrenching feeling those more emotionally resonant films evoked is replaced with a warmer feeling of camaraderie, which is helped along by the inclusion of four songs by the cowboy singers Sons of the Pioneers (they would also sing in Ford’s Rio Grande [1950]). This is not to say that Wagon Master is a less substantial film though, it has just as much to say about the mutual human need for community and connection as Ford's more celebrated works. Here he simply shares that message with a lighter touch.

The only special feature on the disc is an enjoyable commentary from the 2009 DVD release by Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich, which includes clips of John Ford from Bognanovich’s previous interviews with the director.

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

Book Review--Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know

Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know
Ian Haydn Smith
White Lion Publishing, 2019

While there isn’t a definitive definition of what makes a cult film, there is an essential agreement among film fans that these movies are not business as usual. The description “cult” evokes thoughts of bizarre, potentially uncomfortable, or even controversial cinematic expression. In Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know, Ian Haydn Smith explores the works of fifty filmmakers that he categorizes as cult, following that essential definition.

Smith has compiled the most richly inclusive list of cult directors I’ve ever seen gathered in this category. His selections span gender, race, country, and background with fascinating breadth. As a result he has come up with an especially exciting list of filmmakers. While my own definition of cult doesn’t align with some of these directors: for example, the undeniably bizarre Tim Burton has nevertheless enjoyed mainstream success for most of his career which I don’t see as fitting that label, Smith always gets the spirit of this brand of cinema and the impact of each artist is undeniable.

The directors are presented in fifty brief entries of a few pages each. These are short bios, intended as an introduction to the works of each filmmaker. Instead of going into depth about the films or their impact on audiences, the essays focus on the nature of each director’s work and the movies that define them.

While this kind of book is ideal for those who are new to exploring film, as a long-time fan of so-called cult movies I found this to be an addictively enjoyable read. I learned more than I expected, primarily because Smith has moved beyond the usual suspects in compiling his list and particularly because he is so knowledgeable about world cinema, including visionaries like Vera Chytilova, Seijun Suzuki, and Amat Escalante in addition to directors more established as cult like John Waters, Kenneth Anger, and Ed Wood.

Smith covers a lot of ground in a brief book. By the time I raced through Cult Filmmakers, I had that rare feeling of disappointment that there were no more entries to read. The list of films at the end of the book, divided by director will come in handy. Reading about these varied talents got me fired up to revisit favorites, in addition to seeing something new.

Many thanks to White Lion Publishing for providing a copy of the film for review.

Now Streaming: Making Montgomery Clift

When it comes to public opinion of Montgomery Clift, two images tend to dominate. One is of a celebrated, influential actor who coupled unusual sensitivity with traditionally masculine roles. The other is a Hollywood tragedy, believed to be haunted and destroyed by his homosexuality and a serious car accident during the production of Raintree County (1957) which permanently changed his appearance.

In the documentary Making Montgomery Clift (2018), which is now available to stream, Clift’s nephew Robert Clift and filmmaker Hillary Demmon thoroughly examine the actor’s life and the widely accepted tragic narrative about him. At the core of the film is a critical examination of the claims in two biographies of the actor: one sensational book by Robert LaGuardia and another more complicated bio by Patricia Bosworth.

So what is the truth about Montgomery Clift? Was he a tragic figure? Or was he a devoted craftsman who had an unfortunate end, but essentially thrived in his life? Clift and Demmon make a case for the latter and while it is always wise to tread carefully with documentaries where family are involved; there is good evidence here that they are at least somewhat correct.

Clift’s brother Brooks was obsessed with documenting his life, which extended to recording his phone conversations. While that habit seems unsettling in retrospect, the resulting wealth of information from Montgomery Clift himself is invaluable. In his talks with associates and loved ones, the actor shows himself to be intelligent, funny, and committed to being the best actor he can be. He was clearly fascinated by his profession and the life that his roles reflected.

Clift was also not ashamed of his homosexuality as has often been claimed. While the way the society of the time viewed gay men was upsetting to him and ultimately destructive, he found nothing wrong with his desires or in showing affection towards the men he found attractive. His enjoyment of life and love are evident in the conversations, film footage, and other memorabilia shown in the film. Interviews with friends and associates also reveal a man who found a great deal of contentment in life if not a smooth ride.

The film is not meant to be an exploration of Clift’s work, but as it was so intertwined with his life, there is a fair amount of coverage related to his films. He is shown to be completely fascinated by and devoted to his profession, always making choices that supported the integrity of his craft. Several sequences in which Clift’s notations on his scripts are shown side-by-side with the films he made prove how clear-thinking and perceptive he was when it came to how a role should be played.

This perspective on Clift’s life and career is juxtaposed with input from his own family, which struggled to tell the actor’s true story. From the frustration his mother Ethel Clift experienced being accused of damaging her son by keeping him too close, to the fruitless battle Brooks fought with the publishers of the Bosworth biography to correct significant inaccuracies, there is a definite long-desired determination here to change the narrative where Monty is concerned.

I found those phone conversations, interviews with former associates, and script notes illuminating. Perhaps Clift was touched by tragedy, but his life contained a great deal more happiness and fulfillment than I previously thought and, most notably, was not destroyed by that infamous car wreck which has been said to have ruined him, but in fact came at the start of his most productive and satisfying time as an actor.

Whatever the full truth may be, Montgomery Clift was a fascinating, brilliant man who lived big and Making Montgomery is an interesting exploration of who he was versus how he was portrayed.

Many thanks to Team Click for providing a screener of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: William Powell and Myrna Loy Bring Thrills to Marriage in The Thin Man (1934)

The first film in the Thin Man series has long been my cinematic comfort food. William Powell and Myrna Loy are the kind of stars that feel like home, because their wit and high spirits lift you, despite or maybe because of the sour past you can see behind the characters they play. Life has imbued them with cynicism, which they medicate with cocktails, but they are also wealthy, occupied in pursuits that amuse them, and in love in a way that seems off-hand, until you recognize the forces working to pull them apart.

Much like the close-knit marriage that drives the Thin Man movies, Powell and Loy developed an easy, natural partnership on the screen, which they would also enjoy in several films outside of the series. The key factor was that they listened to each other. Director W.S. Van Dyke honed in on that connection; he’d purposely selected actors that were not heartthrobs, so that the romantic excitement came purely from chemistry.

Unsurprisingly, the thrill of Powell and Loy together neuters much of the rest of the film. Its greatest flaw is that the pair is absent from the long exposition in the opening scenes, a problem that is solved when Asta the dog pulls Loy into a bar, off her feet, and she is finally united with her boozy spouse. The best moments are between them: the Christmas morning where Powell blasts balloons off the tree with a bb gun, the smirking lack of concern with which Loy greets her man with another woman in his arms, and the chaos of the dinner party they throw together to catch a murderer are all classics and far more interesting than any mystery they have to solve.

Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks magnificent; as luxurious as it should be. Special features on the disc include audio of a 1936 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of The Thin Man starring Loy and Powell, a theatrical trailer, and a 1957 episode of the lackluster The Thin Man television series starring Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.

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

Streaming Classic Horror: Top Picks and Links to Great Flicks

I always enjoy watching great horror movies, but it is especially fun to watch spooky flicks this time of year. Here are some of my favorite picks for thrills and chills. I've also included a more lengthy list of links to great classic horror films below, many of which can be viewed for free!

Hour of the Wolf (1968) (Criterion Channel)
Ingmar Bergman's take on horror unsurprisingly goes right for the soul. In this surreal and mysterious film Max von Sydow is a painter who suffers from horrifying visions and Liv Ullmann is his tender-hearted wife. Most of the horror here is derived from an intense fear for Ullmann. She seems so vulnerable in the face of the mysterious forces pressing on her husband. 

Kuroneko (1968) (Criterion Channel)
I'm a big fan of a good Japanese ghost story and this is one of the best. A mother and daughter who are assaulted and killed by soldiers come back from the dead to take revenge on the violent men of the world. This is a beautiful film, with apparitions flying effortlessly through the trees and a magically disorienting mood.

The Last Man on Earth (1964) (Hoopla, Prime)
Before The Omega Man (1971), Vincent Price held off post-apocalyptic zombies in this first adaptation of Richard Matheson's book, I Am Legend. It's a less flashy, more somber take on the story, with more backstory. It all works because Vincent Price is so appealing as the titular last man.

Dead of Night (1945) (Kanopy)
This pleasantly spooky horror anthology with a cozy framing story turns into sheer terror thanks to a segment featuring Michael Redgrave and an absolutely horrifying ventriloquist's dummy that comes to life.

A Bucket of Blood (1959) (Kanopy, TubiPrime)
Though producer/director Roger Corman's Beatnik take on the Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953) is played tongue-in-cheek, there are plenty of chilling moments in this low-budget wonder starring beloved character actor Dick Miller in a rare starring role. If you like the mix of humor and horror in this one, don't miss Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) (Kanopy, Tubi) which shares the same sensibility, in addition to several members of the cast and crew.

Viy (1967) (Shudder)
This Russian production based on a story by Nikoli Gogol plays like a lively folk tale. An immature seminarian murders a young woman, and while he is able to cover up his crime, he is coincidentally ordered to keep watch over her body for three nights. Turns out, the lady is not quite at rest and she is out for revenge. The horrors take a while to unfold, but once the creatures of the underworld  rise up to take vengeance, this film turns into a wild and visually exciting ride. Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) (Kanopy, Tubi) is also loosely based on the same story.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (Kanopy)
In this unusual tale of a haunting, a greedy Captain kills an old lady for her gambling secrets. She sold her own soul to get them and from beyond the grave she now makes him pay the price as well. A delightfully spooky mood and eerie atmosphere make this an especially pleasing period flick.

Night Tide (1961) (Kanopy, Prime)
Dennis Hopper is uncharacteristically sweet and vulnerable in an early role as a sailor on leave. In this slow burn story he falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a murderous mermaid. Though he knows he may be in danger, the young seaman fears loneliness even more.

The Hands of Orlac (1924) (Kanopy, Prime)
The Peter Lorre film Mad Love (1935) is the most famous version of this story of a pianist whose hands are replaced with those of a murderer after a horrific accident, and while I love it's campy energy, I also appreciate this more creepily restrained, silent version of the tale. Rather than Lorre's mad doctor character, Conrad Veidt is the center of the action here as the tortured pianist who is horrified by the origin of his new hands.

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) (Shudder)
To fill our your Halloween viewing list, this fascinating documentary is a must-watch. The best actors, directors, and other creators of black horror are paired up to discuss their favorite films, their own work and what it means to be black and working in the genre. There are some fascinating duos here and as many of these films I have seen, my to-see list was nevertheless much longer after watching this.

Silent Horror
Häxan (1922) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy) 
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) (Hoopla, Prime)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) (Hoopla, Kanopy)
Nosferatu (1922) (Hoopla, Kanopy, Prime)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Kanopy, Tubi, Prime)

Hauntings and Creepy Houses
The Changeling (1980) (Shudder)
The Old Dark House (1932) (Shudder, Criterion, Kanopy)
Carnival of Souls (1962) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy
House on Haunted Hill (1959) (Kanopy, TubiPrime)
Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966) (Kanopy)

The Blob (1958) (Criterion Channel)
Fiend Without a Face (1958) (Criterion Channel)
Piranha (1978) (Hoopla)
The Tingler (1959) (Hoopla)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) (Hoopla)

Vampires and Zombies
Ganja and Hess (1973) (Shudder, Prime)
Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Criterion Channel, Prime)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) (Criterion Channel, Prime)
Messiah of Evil (Hoopla, Prime)

All the Colors of the Dark (1976) (Shudder)
Blood and Black Lace (1963) (Shudder, Prime)
Suspiria (1977) (Hoopla)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1971) (Kanopy)
Black Sabbath (1963) (Kanopy, Prime)

There’s also a great collection of producer Val Lewton’s atmospheric horror films on Criterion Channel right now and, if you have the stomach for it, several of Herschel Gordon Lewis’ groundbreaking and gory splatter movies as well.

On Blu-ray: Claude Rains in Technicolor in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952)

There’s nothing quite like the cringe you feel when Claude Rains plays an unlucky character. Even when he is a villain, as he was in Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Notorious (1946), you can’t help feeling for him when life turns against him. This is the kind of sympathetic, if flawed man he plays in the intriguing, low-key thriller The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952). I recently watched a newly restored print of the film on a Blu-ray from ClassicFlix.

Rains is Kees Popinga, a modest bookkeeper living a quiet family life in Groningen, Holland. He is intimately familiar with the schedule of the trains that move through the town; they keep dreams of all the faraway places he longs to see in his daily thoughts.

Impeccably honest, Popinga cannot even grasp the concept of an ordinary man being corrupted by greed. His innocence is destroyed when he realizes his boss Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom) has been stealing from his company and altering his immaculate books. With a French police detective comes to town to examine those very books in order to investigate a crime, he realizes a life of good behavior could come to nothing.

Popinga’s rage at the injustice of it all quickly turns him into the corrupted man he so recently couldn’t comprehend. If a lifetime of playing by the rules can destroy him, he has nothing left to lose. After a violent argument with de Koster leads him to believe he has killed his boss, he escapes to Paris with the money he had stolen with plans to do the same.

Believing he has nothing to live for at home, Popinga pursues the mysterious woman (Märta Torén) who led to de Koster’s downfall, unbothered that it could result in the same fate for himself. No matter what pleasure he grabs though, he’s always left wanting more, and there is no chance he will be allowed to enjoy his ill-gotten wealth in peace.

Rain’s noirish descent into a life of crime is intriguing because he is so ill-suited to bad behavior. He’s capable of misdeeds, but darkness doesn’t run deep within him. He keeps pivoting back to the honest nature he’s always had. 

As the femme fatale, Swedish actress Märta Torén is a somewhat ambiguous character. She has no qualms about betraying Rains and stealing his money, but sometimes she doesn’t seem entirely corrupt. It’s impossible to tell if she sincerely feels that way, but there’s a part of her that appears to sympathize with the hapless Popinga. Sadly, Torén would die of a cerebral hemorrhage only five years later. She’s a sleekly mysterious presence here; it would have been fascinating to see what else she could have accomplished.

A very young Anouk Aimee, billed as Anouk, makes a brief appearance as a savvy prostitute who helps Popinga find lodging.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the film for review. This film is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

On Blu-ray: A Bucket of Blood (1959) Gets the Olive Signature Treatment

After releasing a high quality DVD of Roger Corman's 1959 production of A Bucket of Blood in 2018, Olive Films has upped its game in a big way with a Signature Blu-ray release of the film. I’ve already enjoyed the Olive Signature release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which with its wealth of special features, much like a Criterion Collection release, was so robust that taking it all in felt like attending a film class. A Bucket of Blood gets the same treatment here. In giving genre films this level of attention and respect Olive is properly recognizing their importance in cinematic history.

Though mastered from a new 4K scan, the disc image is clear, but not sharp. It retains a sufficient amount of grain, so that the film doesn’t lose the seedy feel that is the core of its appeal. I found it to be a good middle ground between providing an improved viewing experience and keeping the film firmly in its time and place.

Beloved bit player Dick Miller had his best role as Walter Paisley, the Beatnik coffee shop waiter who finds success as an artist when he covers corpses in clay. Not only was it his most celebrated part, but his character name would follow him to several other films. Fortunately, this seems to have amused him.

With a nod to horror classics including Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953), screenwriter Charles Griffith takes the horrific idea of stealing life to make art and connects it with a man who feels an intensely relatable sense of inadequacy. This concept is especially powerful in an age of social media stardom, where many struggle with feelings of inferiority in the face of easy, but uneasily held fame.

Miller is the perfect actor to embody these feelings of unfulfilled creativity and low self-esteem. Having struggled to be a screenwriter, before barely making a living as a character actor, even this early in his career he had experienced the frustration of having more to offer than the world cared to embrace. As adored as he was, he always wanted, and deserved a little more out of his career.

The special features on the disc are especially remarkable because the key players in this production are all such fascinating characters. A typically measured interview with producer/director Roger Corman is nicely complemented by a livelier interview with Dick Miller conducted by his long-time wife Lainie Miller. An archival radio interview with screenwriter Charles Griffith about his career neatly fills in a little more detail. You can sense the unity in a Corman production, because so often the individual memories they share are remembered the same way.

An incredibly goofy prologue filmed for the German release of the film in 1962 attempts to present A Bucket of Blood as the sequel to House of Wax, though the German release trailer also included on the disc more effectively presents the film as a horror production than the also included US trailer which makes it look like a wacky Beatnik sex romp.

Features also include an interesting gallery of newly-discovered on-set photography, and a silent Super 8 “digest” version of the film, which has the nice touch of being backed by the sounds of a film projector running. An essay by You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me: The Lives of Dick Miller author Caelum Vatnsdal is an interesting review of the different stage and screen adaptations the production has inspired over the years.

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

Quote: David O. Selznick on Hollywood

Image Source

Hollywood might have become the center of a new human expression if it hadn't been grabbed by a little group of bookkeepers and turned into a junk industry.

-David O. Selznick as recalled by Ben Hecht

I don't don't recall having said what he quotes me as saying. It could be harmful.

-David O. Selznick


Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

After a long summer break, my podcast roundup is back! I’m always looking for new movie podcasts to love, so if you have favorites to share, or if you host your own podcast, please share in the comments. All episode titles link to the episode:

Shock Waves
Episode 133

Horror Noire with Tananarive Due and Rachel True
Tananarive Due, one of the producers of the excellent documentary  about the history of black horror 
Horror Noire (2018) and memorable documentary participant Rachel True (The Craft) have a great talk about this amazing movie and the cinema it explores on the official podcast. If you want to skip to their conversation it starts at about an hour and seven minutes in.

Good Evening: An Alfred Hitchcock Podcast
Episode 31

Night Train by Gaslight: The Lady Vanishes
I enjoyed this upbeat chat about Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) with guest Farran Nehme. The discussion about gaslighting in the director’s films was especially interesting.

Book vs. Movie
Episode 40

The Maltese Falcon
This is such a uniformly great show. Cohosts “The Margos” have strong chemistry and their conversations are as casual as a coffee chat, but backed up with good research and thoughtful analysis. Here they do an excellent job comparing the various film versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective classic with the book. Of course Huston’s definitive version gets most of their attention.

Switchblade Sisters
Episode 91

Jennifer Kent/The Innocents
April Wolfe is a great conversationalist and she has a knack for booking brilliant guests, so I’ll always listen to her show no matter the guest or featured film, but it was especially exciting to listen to Babadook (2014) director Jennifer Kent chat with her about The Innocents (1961). What an unusual delight to hear one of my favorite filmmakers discuss one of my favorite films.

Pure Cinema Podcast
September 17, 2019

Soundtracks with Millie De Chirico
TCM Underground programmer Millie De Chirico returns to discuss her favorite tracks from movie soundtracks with hosts Elric Kane and Brian Sauer. I love it when these three get together. They’re all so knowledgeable and crazy in love with everything about movies.

On DVD: Preston Foster as a Suave Gentleman Thief in Double Danger (1938)

I’ve been a big fan of actor and singer Preston Foster ever since I saw his brooding performance opposite Belita in the ice skating noir The Hunted (1948). He’s got an unusually low-key presence: charming, lightly flirtatious, always in control, but never raising his voice and rarely throwing a fist. Foster is in typically fine form in Double Danger (1938) a comedy mystery recently released on DVD from Warner Archive.

Foster stars as Bob Crane, a crime novelist who claims to find inspiration for his suave thief character “The Gentleman” from the case files of local police chief commissioner David Theron. The truth is that Crane is The Gentleman, and Theron knows it, much to the amusement of Crane, who always manages to keep proof of his crimes hidden.

Crane’s adversary is the debutante Carolyn Martin (Whitney Bourne) who uses her social connections to steal jewels which he then steals from her with a flirtatious air. They’re made for each other, but they’d never team up, because each of them clearly needs to be in control.

Martin and Crane are invited to a relaxing weekend at Theron’s country estate, where they both suspect he hopes to catch them in their crimes. As they watch him set his trap, they are amused, but not concerned. Theron’s daughter (June Johnson) and her flustered boyfriend (Arthur Lake, Dagwood from the Blondie series) provide more drama than anyone else.

I love light programmers like these that slide just slightly past an hour. If they’re well made, they’re such a pleasant watch. This is one of the more solid productions of its kind, with an able cast and just the right mix of humor, romance, action, and intrigue. It’s meant simply to make you happy and it succeeds.

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

On Blu-ray: Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944) and the 1940 Original That Preceded It

The 1944 version of Gaslight is one of the first classic films I saw and I return to it frequently. It is Hollywood filmmaking at its best, where talent, story, and production value are so good that a simple entertainment becomes an artistic triumph. I recently revisited the George Cukor-directed film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, which includes the original British adaptation of the film from 1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson.

Both versions on the film center on a wealthy couple in London. She is the fragile, but perceptive survivor of a horrific childhood incident. He is as much her stern caretaker as husband, always claiming to have her best interest in mind, but rarely demonstrating the warmth and regard of true love. When he begins to make her doubt her own sanity, their lives become consumed with emotional violence.

Hollywood gloss can have an unpredictable effect on an adaptation. Sometimes it can destroy the soul of a story; at its best it can elevate it, as happened with Cukor at the helm and a particularly vibrant cast. As the leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer are intense performers and Bergman in particular can have a visceral effect on her audience. With the teenage Angela Lansbury making her screen debut as a maid with carnal knowledge beyond her years and Joseph Cotten providing a soothing counterpoint to his passionate costars, this is a perfectly harmonious cast.

There’s also much to enjoy in the 1940 production, included on the disc as a special feature, which sticks closer to the 1938 stage play upon which it is based. The original also feels more like a stage play, which means that in some respects it is less dynamic than the Cukor version, but that more static feeling also serves the tense mood of the film. As the couple at its center, Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard seem more isolated and focused on each other.

A dramatic difference between the two films is in the way the marriage is portrayed. In the 1940 version Paul and Bella already have a tense relationship. While Bella still desires the affection of her husband, she fears him and already senses that something is deeply wrong. There’s an extra chill to Cukor’s film, because you see Gregory and Paula fall in love, enjoying all the giddy pleasures of a new romance. When it goes wrong, there’s a feeling of loss and even betrayal.

The term Gaslight has become more common over the past few years, as it is now inextricably connected to the trauma of current politics. It was interesting to revisit the more intimate, devastating origins of the concept, and the two different, and in their way equally compelling ways in which this method of abuse is portrayed.

In addition to the 1940 Gaslight, special features on the disc include a 1946 Lux Radio Broadcast of Gaslight, the short featurette Reflections on Gaslight, a Reminiscence by Pia Lindstrom About her Mother Ingrid Bergman, a 1944 Academy Award ceremonies newsreel, 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.

On Blu-ray: Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne in Merrily We Live (1938)

The lightly silly screwball comedy Merrily We Live (1938) was a pleasant revelation for me. Set in the world of the super wealthy, it centers on a family that lives in chaos, much like the brood in My Man Godfrey (1936). While this Hal Roach production isn’t quite as witty as Godfrey, it’s buoyed by high energy, an appealing cast, and slickly-executed physical humor.

Eerily slim-waisted Constance Bennett is Jerry Kilbourne, a gorgeous socialite who lives a life of luxurious aimlessness with her restless siblings (Bonita Granville and Tom Brown), an increasingly fed up father (Clarence Kolb), and her kooky hobo-collecting mother (Billie Burke). They are surrounded by unruly pets: among them birds wiggling on perches and enormous dogs who have clearly flunked obedience school, who add to the general feeling of pandemonium.

Mama Kilbourne’s penchant for taking in homeless men has once again ended in disaster as the flustered butler (Alan Mowbray) discovers the empty silver drawer and must improvise eating implements for breakfast with the less bothered house maid (Patsy Kelly). Though Mrs. K claims to swear off her do-gooding, the next handsome stranger who shows up at the door is given a warm welcome as if not a spoon has been filched. That stranger is Wade Rawlins (Brian Aherne) who is not homeless, but unlucky. Jerry takes a liking to Wade, which is understandable given the mind-numbing dullness of her society boyfriend. A chaotic household becomes increasingly wilder in the process.

While a few of the set pieces in Merrily We Live drag, this is for the most part a consistently fun flick. Aherne is a bit out of his depth as a comic, but he dives into the action with great enthusiasm and pulls off a lightly amusing performance. The rest of the cast moves with delirious comic momentum, fully committed to the lunacy of it all. Burke steals all of her scenes with that familiar fairy-like fluttering, but Bennett keeps pace with her movie mama, demonstrating a comic talent a bit more smoothly elegant than some of her more screwball peers.

Being in the world of the Kilbournes was good fun. This one is worth revisiting.

Merrily We Live is now available on Blu-ray. Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade (1933)

All film fans have their cinematic version of comfort food and mine is the musicals of choreographer Busby Berkeley. These busy, bubbly productions full of wit, beauty and excitement are pleasant to have on in the background, but deserving of the most devoted attention. I’m especially fond of Footlight Parade (1933), because it features James Cagney, famous for crime movies, but an excellent dancer and interpreter of song who rarely had the opportunity to ditch his prop Tommy gun for tap shoes. The film looks great in its Blu-ray debut, now out from Warner Archive.

Director Lloyd Bacon assembled a cast that will be happily familiar to fans of Warner Bros. productions of the day. Cagney is joined by Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Dick Powell in the leads, with endearing characters like Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, and Hugh Herbert in the supporting roles. As a group they work with a slick precision that is hidden behind a façade of insouciance. They’re all entirely comfortable with their personas, quick with a quip, and interact with each other like highly trained dancers.

Cagney is the picture of delight as stage producer Chester Kent, a quick-thinking impresario who must find a way to incorporate live entertainment into cinemas if he hopes to stay in business. He gets into romantic trouble with the always dangerous Claire Dodd, while his lovelorn secretary looks on in exasperation (Joan Blondell, who gets one of the best lines of the era when she tells Dodd, “as long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job”). As great as he was as a gangster, Cagney looks most at home in this setting and frequent costar Blondell is his best screen partner.

The musical numbers are among the best Berkeley staged, from the light charm of kitty-costumed dancers in Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence to the sensual longing of Shanghai Lil. Nothing can beat Busby’s most elaborate number though, a stunning precursor to Esther Williams’ operatic aquatic productions, By a Waterfall

Never has Berkeley's camera seemed more perfectly placed, moving above, below, and through a smilingly willing group of waterlogged chorines. Something about the water makes this precisely-calculated collision of glamour and military discipline look as easy as rolling into the river. It is the perfect cinematic marriage of art and craft.

Special features on the disc, which are carried over from the DVD release, include the featurette Music for the Decades, the fascinating vintage featurettes Rambling ‘Round Radio Row #8 and Vaudeville Reel #1, a collection of vintage cartoons, 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.
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