GIVEAWAY! On Blu-ray: Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and Elke Sommer in The Prize (1963)


The Prize is an unusual film, with a mixed-bag cast and the unique premise of romance and intrigue in the milieu of the Pulitzer Prize ceremony. Starring Paul Newman, Elke Sommer and the eternally reliable Edward G. Robinson, it has the rare quality of seeming simultaneously familiar and bizarrely novel. Now Warner Archive has released this Stockholm-set thriller on Blu-ray, a copy of which I will be giving away! (See bottom of post for details.)

Newman and Robinson have traveled to Stockholm to be awarded the Pulitzer for literature and physics respectively, the former under the watchful eye of hostess Sommer, the latter with his niece (Diane Baker). They settle into a plush hotel where they are gifted with champagne and lavish gift baskets. Here we meet the other prize winners in a series of lightly humorous vignettes that belie the danger to come.

Notorious for heavy drinking and party boy antics, no one believes Newman when he begins to suspect that Robinson has been switched with an impostor. He keeps pressing though, and digging with that writer’s determination to reveal the full plot. Here the imprint of screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) is clear as the danger and mystery begin to imperil an essentially ordinary man who has no idea of the enormity of what he faces.

Though it isn’t as juicy, The Prize has the high gloss allure of large cast dramas like Hotel (1967) and Week-end at the Waldorf (1945). It makes no pretense of existing in a realistic world. There’s an artificial feel to the way the characters interact, who instead of having conversations seem to be announcing to each other the witticisms they’ve been thinking up in their spare time. That can be irritating or great escapism, depending on your mood.

Here Newman is especially guilty of his habit of seeming overly amused with himself, but when he is forced to focus on his physicality, as with a fast-paced bridge chase scene, he reveals great skill as a slapstick comedian. His romance with Sommer is perfunctory, for the most part because the actress was always a bit too cold and distant to be believable in a love affair. Robinson is typically in tune with his role and costars, hitting every note right with his reassuring ease.

It runs longer than it needs to, and the cast could stand a few stronger character actors, but it’s a fun bit of fluff.

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

GIVEAWAY!

Warner Archive has given me an extra copy of the Blu-ray which I would be delighted to send to one of you. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me your favorite actor in the film and why. Responses due by Thursday, March 28. I will announce the winner on Friday, March 29. 


GOOD LUCK!



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

Quote: Alfred Hitchcock on Cinema

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The screen must speak its own language, freshly coined.

-Alfred Hitchcock


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March Podcast Roundup for Classic Film Fans: 6 Great Episodes



This month's podcast roundup is another fascinating mix of old favorites and new finds. I'm particularly impressed by the new shows that have been debuting lately. All titles link to the episode:


Movies Silently
Death and Tinting with Christopher Bird
February 26, 2019

Episode 1

In the first episode of her podcast, Movies Silently blogger Fritzi Kramer has a detailed discussion about tinted films with guest Christopher Bird. It was fascinating to listen to their insights about the technique and art of this early film colorization process, the dangers of nitrate, and preservation. There’s also a fun feature where Kramer provides the proper pronunciation for commonly mispronounced names in silent film. Stick around to the end for her giggle-inducing fake ads as well. This was an engaging debut. I learned a lot and I’m looking forward to future episodes.


She Kills
Illeana Douglas and Grae Drake
March 11, 2019

Episode 4

Shudder's new podcast about women in horror was an instant favorite for me. Though it's advertised as being hosted by Adrienne Barbeau, she only introduces and closes each episode and doesn’t interact with the guests. The core of each show is a discussion between two guests about various tropes regarding women in horror, such as the final girl and damsels in distress. So far pairings have included Karyn Kusama and Emily Deschanel, Jennifer Tilly and Grae Drake and Barbara Crampton and Clarke Wolfe. All of these are excellent shows and worth a listen, but I picked the episode featuring Illeana Douglas and Grae Drake (Rotten Tomatoes) discussing the "Crazy Bitch" trope because as always, Douglas includes the Golden Age of Hollywood in her comments.




Movie Sign with the Mads
Easy Rider
February 4, 2018


I’ve always associated the voices of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 mad scientists Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu with late night television viewings of the show as I settled down after a night out. It’s a comforting memory for me and for that reason I was predisposed to liking their film podcast Movie Sign with the Mads. They discuss a different film each episode, be it a classic or a new release, with their co-host Carolina Hidalgo (Sirius Radio). It’s no surprise that these two have a lot to say about movies, and their chemistry is a perfect fit for podcasting, but the added element of Hidalgo, who is a generation younger, lends an interesting flavor to the conversation. This is especially evident in their episode about Easy Rider, where the Mads share firsthand experience with the initial release of the film while Hidalgo talks about her impressions as a new viewer.




The Magic Lantern
Andrei Rublev
February 24, 2018

Episode 98

The Magic Lantern hosts Ericca Long and Cole Roulain have such soothing voices. If you listen to them around bedtime, it's a bit like a cinematic lullaby. In each episode they discuss a classic film, from big studio productions to art-house favorites. The thing that distinguishes Long and Roulain’s production from any number of other shows with the same format is their easygoing pace and gently reflective tone which is unlike anything I’ve encountered so far in a podcast. This is their first Patreon patron-requested episode, an exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966).



Book vs. Movie
The Manchurian Candidate
March 3, 2018


I have a lot of respect for Margo D. and Margo P., the charming co-hosts of this show in which they compare movies with the books that inspired them. While these two emphasize that they are not experts in film or literature, they are nevertheless a well-read, intellectually curious pair. Their conversations feel like coffee shop conversation: accessible, but thoughtful. I enjoyed their recent episode about The Manchurian Candidate, because they had their qualms about the book and are typically engaging and charismatic in explaining why.



Film Comment
Art and Fascism
February 27, 2018


Film Comment Editor in Chief Nicolas Rapold discusses an article from the latest issue of the magazine about German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) with the piece’s author J. Hoberman and filmmaker/professor Zoe Beloff. They discuss the culture and politics around Riefenstahl’s work, the legacy of Triumph of the Will in particular, her opportunism, and even float the thought that despite her talent, she is perhaps overrated as a filmmaker.

Pre-codes on DVD: Ginger Rogers in Professional Sweetheart (1930) and Helen Twelvetrees in Unashamed (1932)


There's nothing more welcome on my doorstep (apologies to my cats) than a package of pre-code films. Here's a pair of new releases from Warner Archive that I recently viewed:

Professional Sweetheart (1930)

This lively romantic comedy catches Ginger Rogers before musical fame, but already in the full bloom of her charms. She’s plays a radio star with a spotless image, called the “purity girl,” but desperate to cut a rug in Harlem and dropkick her reputation for a little fun.

In order to convince her to sign a new contract, the radio station suits allow her to pick a boyfriend from the bulging files full of the love letters and photographs she receives from her fans. The handsome, but dull Norman Foster is the winning pick. Rogers is pleased, and despite initial misgivings doesn’t even mind him whisking her off to the country to take care of his modest home, but the call of stardom is powerful as long as there is a radio in the corner of the living room.

She hears her maid (Theresa Harris) filling her position on-air and doing a little too well in the role at that. Seeing the always charming Harris shed her maid's uniform for an evening gown and a place in front of the microphone was one of the highlights of the film for me. Unfortunately, her scenes as a star were brief and it is never explained what happens to her when Rogers returns to claim her crown.

Though Rogers’ scrappy, but sparkling singing voice was one of the most charming aspects of her persona, here I was alarmed to find she was dubbed by the talented, but more operatic Etta Moten. It took some getting used to, though it wasn’t unpleasant.

Rogers is surrounded by some of the best of the Warner Bros contract players; they’re the people that make you grin when they pop up in a scene. There’s Zasu Pitts as a half prim/half randy lady rag journalist, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, and Gregory Ratoff prancing through their shtick as radio executives, and then dear, bland Foster justifying his presence with a strong jaw.

It’s the kind of Warner’s pre-code production where the racy stuff is inserted in lightning-fast moments and everyone knows exactly how to keep the action moving. Not a classic, but a very good time.


Unashamed (1932)

Fans of Helen Twelvetrees will find little to surprise them in Unashamed. This murder-courtroom melodrama has the gowns, plucked eyebrows, and romance-gone-wrong that were firmly in the actress’s wheelhouse. Costarring Robert Young in his adorable young man phase, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, it is a production meant to reassure more than tread new ground.

Twelvetrees is wealthy young Joan, devoted sister to her brother Dick (Young), affectionate daughter to her father (Robert Warwick), and poor romantic decision-maker all on her own. She falls under the spell of cash poor polo player Harry (Monroe Owsley) and doesn’t see him placing her into a trap via sexual scandal until it is too late.

Dick defends his sister's honor in a heated confrontation that ends in him killing the sleazy homme fatale. Still blind to her lover’s faults, Joan refuses to stand up for her brother in court. Of course she eventually bows to family bonds, whatever the sacrifice, in the end.

This unremarkable, but smoothly assembled production is best recommended for fans of Twelvetrees and Young.

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

Quote: Lina Wertmüller on Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni

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Federico and Marcello never took each other too seriously.They both mocked each other for their diva status.They didn't really buy into it.They never lost their sense of humor.

-Lina Wertmüller, about Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastoianni


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Book Review--Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights 1976-2016


Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights 1976-2016
Ed. Brian M. Jack
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

For all the liberties it takes with the truth, cinema has always had a strong influence on reality. Whether it is the reflection of societal unrest or the ability to inspire movements among the people, its impact is undeniable. In a new book of essays edited by Brian M. Jack, the portrayal of the South in film and how it relates to issues such as slavery, identity, and social upheaval are weighed against the world in which these movies were released.

The ten essays cover a wide range of issues within that realm, from the public to the domestic. It is as intimate as familial relations and wide as the systems that oppress people of color. In essence, it reveals a cinematic landscape that has evolved in the way it treats race, but still has a long way to go as far as telling a well-rounded history of the South.

I was especially impressed by Caroline Schroeter’s essay which compared D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) with Nate Parker’s 2016 rebuke of the same name. She explores the way Griffith’s influential epic in some ways helped to set and reinforce damaging perceptions of black people in America, possibly including a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. When Parker filmed an essential response to the film with his telling of a slave rebellion, he made several compelling arguments, but as Schroeter notes, his neglect of female characters and denial of their own agency is problematic. At its best, the essays in the book balance history, society and the true state of social progress in this way.

This collection is a thoughtful, deep dive into the South as it is represented, and it covers a surprising breadth of topics with success. While critical assessments of the problematic aspects of classics like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) have become a familiar part of cinematic discourse, and current releases are subject to a similar interrogation, the films of the seventies through the nineties are also ripe for new exploration. That is perhaps the greatest triumph of this collection, which digs into movies from that period like Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Color Purple (1985) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) with an eye to the society it reflected then compared the way things are now.

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

On Blu-ray: William Holden and Ryan O'Neal in The Wild Rovers (1971)


The Blake Edwards western Wild Rovers (1971) strives to be many things, with varying levels of success. It embraces wide-open spaces, but knows little about what to do with the people in them. Featuring a beautifully-seasoned William Holden and a pretty-and-aware-of-it Ryan O’Neal, it isn’t the epic it would like to be, but it has its rewards. I recently watched the original cut of the film, which differs from the original theatrical release trimmed heavily by MGM, on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Holden and O’Neal are generationally distant, but emotionally in-sync cowboys who want to discard the cowpoke life for something more luxurious. Weary, and restricted under the control of the self-righteous ranch owner (Karl Malden) who employs them, they decide that bank robbery is their key to the good life. They don’t take into consideration the unwillingness of the society around them to let them whisk that cash away in peace.

I went into Wild Rovers blind. With Blake Edwards as director and O’Neal giving Holden a big bear hug while sitting behind him on a horse on the Blu-ray cover, I expected something light and funny. While the film does have its goofy moments, it is just as often in a struggle to fulfill its grand ambitions.

The warning signs come early. There’s the roadshow-style Overture, Entr’acte and Finale, the lengthy, sweeping opening credits, and the feeling that you are being nudged to prepare yourself for a profound experience. While these elements aren’t necessarily troublesome in themselves, they don’t frame the kind of film that justifies them.

In that part of his career where he knew his craft intimately and exuded wisdom and weariness with a comforting gravity, Holden gives his unimaginatively written character and partnership with O’Neal the warmth of a man who is good with women. The glow transfers somewhat to O’Neal, who could never wear a role the way his costar does, but who also seems to have been positively influenced by the presence of a master. In this overlong, but somehow insubstantial film, the tenderness of their friendship and the lack of movie cowboy stoicism in their conversations is what distinguishes it.

The outdoor photography is also breathtaking, capturing the purity of landscape and wonder of life on the range. As a reprieve from the occasionally stifling feel of the drama, these locations have the effect of taking in fresh air. They are a vivid backdrop for some decent, if overly dependent on slo-mo action scenes. Most impressive is the sequence where Holden and O’Neal attempt to tame a wild horse; a scene which Edwards had the men train for so they could do as much of the wrangling as possible.

While it fizzles as the epic it wants to be, Wild Rovers is gorgeous to behold, ably anchored by Holden, and notable for its less traditional, and more personable take on male friendship.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a trailer for the film and the featurette The Moviemakers.

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

Quote: Ernst Lubitsch on Filming

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There are a thousand ways to point a camera, but really only one.

-Ernst Lubitsch


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Noir City Seattle 2019: The Scarlet Hour (1956) and 1950s Noir


Last week Noir City 2019 swept through Seattle with a slate of twenty films, an impressive eleven of them on 35mm. This year’s theme: the noirs of the fifties, presented chronologically. I saw four films over two nights and as it was the middle of the festival, they were selections from the halfpoint of the decade.

Over two nights I watched Pushover (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), The Scarlet Hour (1956), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956). For the most part the pleasure of the event was enjoying a well-curated selection of noirs with an appreciative audience. With the exception of The Scarlet Hour, I’d seen all of them before, and had even seen Noir City host and Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Mueller introduce Pushover at another noir-themed event presented by SIFF in 2008 (both times he told the same story about Kim Novak not wearing a bra; guess it made quite an impact on him).

I went into The Scarlet Hour blind, with no idea that Michael Curtiz had directed and that it starred Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby) an actress whose amoral persona might have brought her greater stardom in the pre-code era or forties noirs. It’s an odd film, made at the end of Curtiz’ career and with a familiar plot about a cheating trophy wife trying to escape a violently oppressive husband (James Gregory) with her lover (Tom Tryon), but with an unsteady mood that keeps you on your guard.

As much as I enjoyed the rare chance to see Ohmart in a leading role, it turned out she was not the star attraction. That honor goes to Elaine Stritch, here in her first film, as Ohmart's infinitely more wholesome friend. In a rare case of Broadway oomph translating well to the screen, Ms. Stritch obliterates everyone around her whenever she appears. She’s all bubbles and laughs; a relative innocent oblivious to the seedy action that surrounds her.

It was also a nice surprise to see Nat King Cole in a nightclub scene. He performs the lush standard Never Let Me Go with his marvelous beatific smile and smooth romanticism. If there is anything to make the film a must-see, it is his performance and the spirited Stritch.

Quote: Charles Boyer on His Romantic Appeal

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I do not know when I became so nice-looking as they all say. I suppose it was when I lost my hair and began experimenting with the toupees. In silent films, I looked like a bandit who eats little children.

-Charles Boyer

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Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: February Round-up



This was a bittersweet month in podcast listening, with the delight of new discoveries and raucous memories and the sadness of a great loss to the classic film community. Here's what moved me. Podcast titles link to the episodes:


NitrateVille Radio
Episode 35

Serge Bromberg on Méliès and More

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films possesses an unusual mixture of deep film history and technical knowledge paired with a flair for performance. He is a charming presence on this episode of NitrateVille Radio, where he discusses the release of a newly-restored set of Georges Méliès films, among other things.

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 36

Remembering Ron Hutchinson, John Bengtson on Where Silent Comedy Was Shot

This month the classic film community mourned the death of Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project. A beloved figure in the preservation community and among film fans, Hutchinson was responsible for the restoration of hundreds of shorts and a passionate presenter and promoter of this important part of film history. Musician and Project cofounder Vince Giordano remembers his friend and the work they did together.


The Movies That Made Me
January 15, 2019

Karyn Kusama on Michael Ritchie

Karyn Kusama is one of my favorite directors and I also love her regular contributions to the Trailers from Hell website, so I made listening to this episode a priority because of her and didn’t recognize the name of director Michael Ritchie, whose films she would be discussing. Well it turns out I am a big fan of Ritchie and didn’t know it. He’s one of those filmmakers who has made a lot of respected films, but hasn’t been as widely recognized for his body of work as some of his contemporaries. Now that I have made the connection that one filmmaker made favorites of mine like Semi-Tough (1977), The Bad News Bears (1976), Smile (1975), and The Candidate (1972), I definitely plan to catch up with the rest of his work.

The Movies That Made Me
January 8, 2019

William Friedkin

I heard about William Friedkin’s interview with the Trailers from Hell crew at The Movies That Made Me in the news before I noticed it in my podcast queue. The director created a bit of a stir because he said how much he hated Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Of course anyone familiar with Friedkin would find that frank opinion less than shocking; he’s known for speaking his mind. Here he’s delightfully crusty, cranky, and sometimes profound in the wildest episode I’ve heard of this podcast. I disagree with half of what he says, but love that he’s completely unfiltered.


Maltin on Movies
February 1, 2019

Mitzi Gaynor

In this incredibly entertaining interview with Leonard and Jessie Maltin, the perky Mitzi Gaynor of stage and screen reveals herself to be a salty, sharp-witted and fascinating dame. Gaynor is a great storyteller, with strong memories of her past and immense gratitude for her successful career. As I’ve always got a backlog of episodes I need to catch up on, I rarely listen twice to a podcast, but in this case I am going to make an exception because there’s so much to take in here.


Quote: Brigitte Bardot on Humanity

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In a way, humanity remains like an animal. It functions as a herd. Man is fundamentally selfish, and most people do not react to a cause unless it directly affects them … I want the public to be indignant, to come out of its comfort zone.

-Brigitte Bardot


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Book Review--Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master, MGM Director of Garbo, Crawford and Gable


Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

Unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, such as Ford, Wyler and Cukor, the name Clarence Brown can draw a blank face from even classic film fans. It’s only until you consider the stars the MGM director worked with: Valentino, Garbo, Crawford, and Gable, or the films he made: Flesh and the Devil (1926), National Velvet (1944), The Yearling (1946), and Intruder in the Dust (1949), that you realize he was a giant in his own, less celebrated way. In a new biography by Gwenda Young, the filmmaker finally gets his due.

Brown was a complicated man, both personally and professionally. A trained engineer, he was drawn to the movies for their technical aspects, and yet he also had the ability to draw emotionally rich performances from his stars. On the set he could be subtle in his direction, pulling stars aside to whisper directions, but he had a reputation for coldness and unrelenting perfectionism. As a friend and business associate he cultivated long-term relationships and could provide much-needed support to those in need, but his multiple marriages often ended because of distance and emotional abandonment.

As a director, Brown didn’t have a distinctive style, which is probably as much the reason he hasn’t been remembered as an auteur as his reputation for being a company man at the behest of Louis B. Meyer. While it is true the director knew how to play the game, it did not prevent him from finding artistically fulfilling work and maintaining control over his career path. He cut his cinematic teeth under the silent film director Maurice Tourneur and the visual skills he acquired alongside him would inform his own work well beyond the silent era. Director Jean Renoir saw this knack for visual poetry and was among the few who found him to be an underrated filmmaker.

Young explores the often deeply intertwined personal and professional aspects of Brown’s life with a steady eye, noting the many contradictions he embodied. Especially compelling is her account of the production of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a profound rebuke against racism which the director made to address the ghosts from his own southern past. While he showed social consciousness in pursuing the project, he insisted that a young black actor play like a “coon” in a graveyard scene, rolling his eyes in fear while the white actors remained calm.

In addition to the satisfying examination of Brown as a man, the book is also full of the reflected glory of his association with the most glittering of the MGM stars. He is famous for being Garbo’s frequent collaborator, but worked just as much with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He nurtured the youthful talents of Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Butch Jenkins and Claude Jarman Jr. and adeptly managed big personalities like Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy. As a result, there are lots of entertaining on-set stories here.

This is a solid, much-needed tribute and an enjoyable read.


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

On Blu-ray: Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940)


I’m always delighted to watch Errol Flynn in any kind of movie, but like many film fans, I find him most irresistible in his swashbucklers. There’s a lightness to him in these roles; partly because of his easy athleticism, but also because he never seems to be taking things too seriously. Maybe there was a bit of self-mockery at play there, but the effect is charming. It was fun to see him again in one of his best roles as English Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), which recently debuted on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The Sea Hawk is grand, big studio, golden era filmmaking. With majestic brass on the soundtrack, magnificent towering sets, and gorgeous costumes, it is a luxurious production. The film also benefits from some of the most charismatic players of the day: Claude Rains playing a Spaniard, Flora Robson as an appropriately regal, but lightly humorous Queen Elizabeth, and the eternally reliable Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Alan Hale as support. Flynn is at his most dashing, approaching his role with a pleasing mix of gravity and zing. While there are many who wish Flynn’s frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland had played his love interest here, and it is true those two would have had more sparks between them, I liked Brenda Marshall’s moodier vibe, not to mention that she’s more believable as the niece of a Spanish ambassador (Rains).

Flynn’s Captain Geoffrey is the leader of a band of privateers who sail the sea taking supposed reparations for England. They have the public disapproval and private support of the queen when the crew commandeers a ship carrying Rains and Marshall. He is enroute to the queen to attempt to distract her from her suspicions about King Philip of Spain, who is secretly planning to send an armada to England in his quest for world domination. Marshall instantly falls for Flynn, how could she not? And settles into a new life as a lady in waiting for the queen.

Queen Elizabeth accepts the Captain’s suggested plan for a secret mission to intercept a shipment of Spanish gold. When he and his men are captured and enslaved, he learns about the armada and escapes so that he can warn his queen. All the while, he must deal with the treachery of Rains and Daniell, who is a traitor working undercover for Spain.

While it doesn’t skimp on story, The Sea Hawk is a classic because of its magnificent action set pieces. It opens with a chaotic sea battle, keeps up the pace with a few other bursts of excitement and closes with a fast-paced swordfight between Daniell and Flynn that ends in near darkness as Errol slices the tops off candles. These moments, and the charisma of the players, for the most part justify the long running time, though I did find myself drifting at the midpoint of the film, until those final action sequences roared into action.

The restored disc image is of solid if not sparkling quality. A sepia sequence midway through the film seemed less sharp, but overall there are no significant issues with the look of the film.

Special features include the featurette The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action, which includes astonishing footage of the enormous and elaborately-designed ships constructed for the production. It was lovely to see interviewee Robert Osborne talk about the film as well. The disc includes the Warner Night at the Movies 1940 feature from the DVD release, introduced by Leonard Maltin, which replicates a night at the theater back in the day with a newsreel, live-action short Alice in Movieland (featuring a pre-stardom Joan Leslie), the cartoon Porky’s Poor Fish, and theatrical trailers.

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

Book Review--Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer


Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
Edited by Kelley Smoot
Rowman & Littlefield/Lyons Press
1953/2019

Given the fact that niece Letitia Fairbanks had a strong influence on its creation, the straightforward honesty of Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer is remarkable and refreshing. The 1953 biography of the pioneering star and producer delves into all facets of his personality, from the delightful to the disappointing. Now this classic biography, which was originally written by Ralph Hancock, with input from Fairbanks, is being reissued with new archival material and unseen photographs, under the editorial supervision of Letitia’s daughter Kelley Smoot, who has assumed the mantle of family historian from her mother.

There are troubling elements of The Fourth Musketeer, like long, impossibly detailed conversations between Doug and the people in his past, but for the most part this is a revealing and evergreen portrait of an actor and producer who set the standard for many things in his industry. It’s a deeply personal account, which taps into the man as much as his work. While Tracey Goessel’s epic biography of Fairbanks is the ultimate resource on the actor, this is a book that captures his soul.

Fairbanks was one of the first stars to make a splash in films, and alongside his second wife Mary Pickford became part of the first celebrity couple. He was also savvy to the financial benefits of owning a piece of his work, becoming one of the founding members of United Artists. As a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was influential in shaping the overall structure of film work as well.

Reaching that career status came easy to Fairbanks. He slid into Broadway roles with little effort and when he realized he was aging out of the best parts, he embraced the large paycheck and creative possibilities of filmmaking with enthusiasm. It was a great outlet for his boundless energy and restlessness, though even bounding through a series of physically ambitious roles was ultimately not enough to satisfy him.

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Fairbanks would travel as much as possible, always striving to find a way to occupy himself. That insatiable quest for satisfaction is the primary theme running through The Fourth Musketeer. As easy as material success and romance came to Doug, his struggle to reckon with himself was more daunting. The key to that may be found in his failure to forge a paternal bond with his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who eventually leaned into a close friendship instead with his father. The actor seems to have feared the way fatherhood made him face his own mortality and the fact that he wasn’t always going to be able to bound through life with the athletic vigor of his youth.

Hancock and Fairbanks are admirable in their thorough examination of Doug and his complexities. Facing his weaknesses, and exploring how they were inextricably intertwined with his unique gifts, in addition to sharing exciting on-set stories and tales of his life with Pickford, makes for a compelling read. This new edition lets the strength of the original book dominate, with the new materials providing additional support to an already sturdy narrative. It’s a great celebration of an eccentric, complicated man who remains as fascinating today as ever.


Many thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for providing a copy of the book for review.

Quote: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on Ernst Lubitsch


He never forgot that dialogue should complement, not replace, what is essentially a visual medium.

-Douglas Fairbanks Jr., about Ernst Lubitsch


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On DVD/Blu-ray--Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color


For the past eleven years, Flicker Alley has worked with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Fims to faithfully release several lovingly-crafted compilations of the works of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès. From its wide-ranging box set Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) to the robust release featuring a restoration of the hand-colored A Trip to the Moon (1902), the label has played a vital role in preserving the filmmaker’s legacy. Now in the new release Méliès: Fairytales in Color, Flicker Alley has once again partnered with Lobster and Blackhawk to bring Méliès to the masses.

Many of the thirteen short films included in Fairy Tales in Color were also a part of First Wizard set (with the significant exception of Robinson Crusoe [1903]), but here they are presented in restorations drawn from newly discovered elements and greatly improved digital technology. The result: image quality that is simply jaw dropping for a series of films over a century old. Details are sharper, hand-painted colors pop, and the clarity of the storytelling is all the more magical because of it. While the color was never meant to be completely realistic, in some instances it’s startling how true-to-life it can be.

While the original Flicker Alley Méliès set will always be the best bet for a deep dive into the filmmaker’s work, I find this collection the most compelling. The fairy tale theme is an appealing concept which ties in nicely with the magic of his style. With accessible stories and sharp clarity of image, this the ideal set for Méliès newbies and for introducing children to classic film.

Several of the films include narration, based on original scripts penned by Méliès, and read by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. These are useful, especially for younger viewers, as several of the films would be difficult to decipher without them. It’s also fun to get a taste of the charm and flair for performance Bromberg has brought to his own live shows at several film festivals, in which he similarly provides narration and shares assorted shorts; all that’s missing is the cheeky between films commentary.

The films in the set range in length from a minute to twenty minutes, with a fairly even mix of varying lengths. Among the longer films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) are highlights, while the brisk but fascinating The Pillar of Fire (1899) and The Infernal Cauldron (1903) are among the shorter gems. It’s a beautifully curated collection which covers a lot of ground within the confines of its theme.

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

On Blu-ray: Sci-fi Classic The Thing from Another World (1951)


The Thing from Another World (1951) is deservedly regarded as a classic of the sci-fi genre. It’s got the requisite thrills and fantastic creature intrigue, while distinguishing itself with well-developed, interesting characters, a legendary soundtrack, and sharp production value given its relatively low budget. I recently watched the film in a gorgeous restoration on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in which it has been returned to its original theatrical length.

In a plot of slowly building tension, a team of researchers on assignment in the arctic discover a mysterious object which has crashed to earth and became suspended beneath a layer of ice. They soon realize it is alien creature inside a spaceship, and the being has somehow still clung to life. As they try to understand who has invaded their planet, and speculate whether there are more ships to come, the group fights off the attacks of this creature that lives on blood.

One of the best things about this movie is its effortless flow, which has much to do with the easy chemistry of the cast and the way their busy, overlapping conversations ring true-to-life. Sometimes the patter runs as fast as in a newsroom comedy. It has long been rumored that producer Howard Hawks directed more of the film than credited helmer Christian Nyby, and given the snappy rhythm I can see how that could be true. As the tension builds, the feeling of peril is intensified because you don’t want any harm to come to this vibrant, likeable crew. The camaraderie and skill of this team of soldiers, scientists, and a journalist are intensely appealing.

In this uniformly engaging cast, Kenneth Tobey is especially appealing as the captain of the mission; he projects reassuring ease as a hero who is inherently brave, but humble about it. Hawks created a female role on the originally all-male crew so that he could promote his new discovery Margaret Sheridan, who plays Tobey’s fiancé. There’s no mistaking why she appealed to him: she’s a dead ringer for his wife Slim. 

While the boost didn’t launch Sheridan into stardom, as a diligent, practical scientist she is a coolly intelligent asset and gently amusing in her banter with Tobey. Her inclusion is also remarkable for being a rare female role in that era in which she is an equal and has agency, though yes, she makes coffee for the guys; it’s still the 1950s. Both Tobey and Sheridan are especially intriguing because they’re not coy or silly as is often seen in roles like these. They’re just a pair of highly competent people who are entertaining because of the delight they take in their work and each other.

Robert Cornthwaite is also intriguing as a scientist who endangers the group because of his determination to learn more about the creature. As frustrating as it is to see him continuously create dangerous situations, it’s interesting how well the crew understands his desire for discovery. As a fellow scientist Sheridan in particular views him with compassion and patience. While the crew thwarts his plans in the interest of their own survival, they also protect him.

In a pre-Gunsmoke role, future T.V. western star James Arness plays the alien. It’s ironic that the only cast member who went on to great fame had in some respects the most thankless part. However, though he plays a roaring animate vegetable with no lines and little screen time, he’s the center of all the big scare moments and provides an exhilarating pay-off to all that slow-building tension.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack is a genre masterpiece, broadcasting uneasy doom with its blasting horns and slithery Theremin (the instrument of classic sci-fi flicks). It is deservedly one of the most celebrated aspects of the film. In the final scene in particular, it amps up the sense of dread magnificently.

Special features include a pair of trailers: one original the other to promote the restoration.


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

Quote: Lena Horne on Ava Gardner

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She didn't feel she was born to rule. She felt that life was crappy and that a lot of people got mistreated for weird reasons and she liked to see people like each other.

-Lena Horne

Guest Post: Film Discoveries of 2018 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks


To see my favorite film discoveries of 2018, check out my guest post at Brian Sauer's lovely recommendation site Rupert Pupkin Speaks. It's always a pleasure to submit to Brian's various themed series. I highly recommend you follow him, though I must warn you: your "to-watch" list will expand a great deal!

Podcast Roundup: 5 Picks for Classic Film Fans


I dug deep into some podcast archives this month as I explored a few new-to-me shows. Here are five episodes that I found especially interesting:



Documenteers
F For Fake with Tyler Mahan Coe
Episode 56
12/6/18

Host Bob Sham and guest Tyler Mahan Coe (host of podcasts Cocaine and Rhinestones and Your Favorite Band Sucks) have a thought-provoking conversation about Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973) in this episode of a podcast which explores the world of film documentaries. The pair explores the fakery revealed in the film, the possible fakery of the film itself, and have a spirited discussion about fraudulent people and the fantasies they sell. Coe is well known for his dedication to thorough research and is typically knowledgeable and engaging here.




Film Comment
Ida Lupino
11/14/18

Official Film Comment podcast host Nicholas Rapold chats about the directing career of Ida Lupino with guests Farran Smith Nehme and Sheila O’Malley in anticipation of a series of her films that were screened at the Lincoln Film Center last year. Not only are these gals two of the most compelling and informed film writers working today, but they have the lovely, elegant voices of a pair of glamorously gowned ladies in a classic Hollywood film. A purely enjoyable episode, even if you already know a lot about Lupino.



99% Invisible
The Architect of Hollywood
Episode 255
4/10/17

This slickly-produced podcast about the design that affects our daily lives is one of my new favorites. While it isn’t explicitly about the movies, this episode about Paul Williams, the innovative, prolific, and admirably determined architect who helped to mold Hollywood’s eclectic architectural landscape as one of the first African Americans in the field is as inspiring as an epic film biopic.



The Other 50%
Karie Bible
Episode 73
10/31/17

I’ve been working my way through the archives of this new-to-me podcast about women working in the entertainment industry and came upon an old episode featuring Karie Bible, who is the owner of the website Film Radar and co-author of Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays, but is probably best known for being the official tour guide at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Here she has a great conversation with host Julie Harris Walker about women in film, what was then emerging as the Times Up movement, and how she created her own job at the Cemetery.



Criterion Now
FilmStruck, Fandor, and the state of home media
Episode 76
12/10/18

Jill Blake (The Retroset/TCM/FilmStruck) and Fritzi Kramer (Movies, Silently) join in a spirited conversation about the loss of FilmStruck and Fandor and the future of streaming. There’s lots of food for thought here as the three discuss viewing options now available for film fans and anticipate the arrival of new streaming services.

Quote: Howard Hawks on Filmmaking

Hawks with Lauren Bacall/ Image Source

As we work on scenes, I always go back and say, "How would it be if it were directly opposite?" and sometimes it leads to very interesting things, because there is no particular reason that they have to run in a straight line--they can take a jog.

-Howard Hawks

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On Blu-ray: Rod Taylor, Jim Brown and Yvette Mimieux in Dark of the Sun (1968)


It has long baffled me that Rod Taylor was not a bigger star. A romantic, heroic figure with acting chops to boot, he was capable of handling any role and capturing a widespread audience. His performance in Dark of the Sun (1968) is one of his best, because it captures every facet of his persona, from the rugged to the gallant. An effective cast joins him in this bleak, but riveting action flick. The film recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Taylor is Bruce Curry a mercenary who flies into the Congo with his best friend Ruffo (football-player-turned-thespian Jim Brown) to accept a job. They are on a supposed rescue mission, though they are actually there to recover a fortune in diamonds for the president. The men are given a steam train and a pack of soldiers to take them through territory made treacherous by the violent Simba uprising. Taylor also hires alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) and the shifty, but skilled ex-Nazi Heinlein (Peter Carsten) to fill out the team. Along the way they pick up the traumatized Claire (Yvette Mimieux) whose husband has been killed and house destroyed by the Simbas.

From the beginning of the film, violence is in the air. As Curry and Ruffo ride into town, they look out bullet hole-ridden windows at the litter of violence: trashed cars, cowering people, and the sort of quiet that always means bad news. It is a rare moment of ominous calm.

Once the mission begins, the horror of the conflict roars into view. This was a brutal film for the times, with glimpses of severed limbs, glimpses of rape, and an overall feeling of despair in the face of careless violence. That said it does have its moments of pure excitement. Brown and Taylor are magic together and their effortless athleticism in the actions scenes has a timeless appeal.

This was a perfect role for Taylor because it gave him the opportunity to both show off his action star chops and the emotional complexity he was capable of as an actor. He has a strong masculine energy, but it rarely feels overwhelming. Even when he’s slamming his fist into a desk and barking out a command, there’s a humorous lilt to it. It’s like a caress and he uses that compelling charm on both women and men.

It’s fascinating that the strongest emotional connection in Dark of the Sun is between Taylor and Brown. As in The Time Machine (1960), Mimieux has a pleasant chemistry with Taylor, but like in that film, it never sizzles. Of course this is partly because she doesn’t have much of a part to play. If you cut her out completely, you’d hardly notice.

This is not the case with Brown. He is the moral center of the film. Though it often seems it is the voices of others who are steering the emotionally conflicted Taylor in the right direction, he wouldn’t even listen if it weren’t for the empathy Brown inspires in him. It’s a great platonic love story the likes of which are rarely seen between two men in film.

Jacques Loussier’s bold, sweeping soundtrack perfectly captures the feel of the film. He alternates between pounding piano and lush melancholy strings, trading romance and brawn much the way Taylor does. It has the emotional heft of an Ennio Moriccone score and often sounds a bit like the composer’s work, though not quite as quirky.

Color is such an important part of establishing the mood of this film and the Blu-ray image is the best it’s ever looked to me. Special features include a theatrical trailer and a commentary by screenwriter Larry Karazewski, Josh Olson, Brian Saur, and Elric D. Kane that’s a blast because the guys approach the whole thing like a party celebrating the greatness of the film.

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

Quote: Lina Wertmüller on Fun

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I consider fun to be something priceless. Much more so than success.

-Lina Wertmüller


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On DVD: Dane Clark, Janis Paige, and Zachary Scott in Her Kind of Man (1946)


One of my favorite things about the snappy programmers cranked out by studios like Warner Bros is that they often feature players who deserve a brighter spotlight. They don’t have the booming personas of the big stars, and they are often called the “poor man’s” version of somebody else, but they are nevertheless a pleasure to watch. Her Kind of Man (1946), which recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive, is just that kind of film.

Dane Clark, Janis Paige, Zachary Scott, and Faye Emerson are a riveting quartet in this noirish 1920s-set drama. Paige is a nightclub singer who has it bad for gangster (Zachary Scott), despite the best efforts of a newspaper reporter (Clark) to win her over. Maybe the man she loves is trouble, but they connect in an almost innocently romantic way, and it’s clear she’d never go for another guy. As his wise assistant, Emerson is an interesting platonic match for Scott, trying, but failing to point him in the right direction. (They were also a great team in Danger Signal a year earlier.)

This is one of those built-to-be-standard flicks that achieve a little extra magic, thanks to a few special elements. Chief among them is the cast, which is full of reliable players. Here they all connect so well, bringing life to a story with nothing new to offer simply because it's enjoyable to watch them together.

Paige is glamorous, but touchingly sincere, and Scott gets a chance to add a more playful air to his typical scoundrel role. Dane Clark tends to have the air of a guy who knows he’s always going to be second banana. Here he is cheerful about it, putting that persona to very specific use as he strives to impress Paige, but doesn't take himself too seriously. I don’t know that it would have necessarily served the story well, but I found myself craving more of Emerson; the solidity and intelligence of her character grounded the film in an interesting way.

In addition to the fine cast, the look of Her Kind of Man rises well above programmer grade. Paige benefits the most from the glimmering cinematography, especially in her nightclub numbers. The night scenes are also a gorgeously moody backdrop for danger and betrayal.

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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