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.

Book Review--Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend

Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend
Sam Staggs
Kensington Books, 2019

It’s fair to say that the Gabor women never bored anyone. For decades, pop culture frothed with the escapades of sisters Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda and their mother Jolie. These Hungarian glamour gals escaped the horrors of World War II Europe to thrive, strive, and live big in the American public eye. In a new book, Sam Staggs explores the lives of these women who were occasionally misunderstood, but never ignored.

Zsa Zsa gets the bulk of the attention in the book, for the most part because she had the highest public profile, though the author’s long association with her daughter Francesca clearly had much to do with the level of detail available about her. Hers is also the most fascinating story, a chaotic mix of marriages, movies, television appearances, oft unseen good deeds, and questionable decisions. I was fascinated to learn more about her acting career; there were several films of hers that I'd never heard of, and which seem to have revealed a talent that wasn't developed.

A more serious and career-minded actress, Eva would have liked the attention her sister got, though perhaps not the notoriety. Her Hungarian accent always limited her career opportunities. This is not to say she didn’t make her mark in legitimate roles. She excelled in the classic TV program Greenacres (1965-1971) and made brief appearances in celebrated films like Gigi (1958) and as a voice actress in the Disney productions The Rescuers (1977) and The Aristocats (1970). Eva never attained the level of stardom she desired though, with high quality lead roles always elusive. Here her frustration is made clear.

These two women and their loving, but bumpy relationship dominate the story, while their more stable, sober-minded sister Magda and their flamboyant jewelry store owner mother Jolie are mentioned as much for their relationship to these two as for their own stories. Unlike her sisters, Magda was in Europe and served her country during World War II, an experience which colored the rest of her life. Jolie seems to have been less bothered by her turbulent wartime past, instead enjoying all the pleasures she could grab and edging herself into her daughters’ spotlight as much as possible. In a revealing early passage, Staggs writes that Jolie enjoyed watching her daughters fistfight when they were girls. She clearly loved her children, but her values were often not healthy for them.

As far as covering the more sensational aspects of Gabor life, the book delivers, though it also reveals the extent to which the family cared for others, including their fellow Hungarians during the occupation and their father, who they tried to keep safe and provide for throughout his struggles in Hungary. While they embraced the glitter of fame and wealth, they were more connected to their roots than public perception would have you think. Zsa Zsa in particular comes off as more complex, truly the person she revealed to the public, but also more caring than is often perceived, though often made less so by her passions for the wrong men.

I often found myself thrown by the differences in tone throughout the book, from objective third person narrative, to strongly worded opinion and with the format sometimes switching to conversations between author and various interviewees. I also found it unnecessary to share the troubles of Zsa Zsa’s daughter Francesca in such detail. Outlining the particulars of an unpleasant incident at a coffee shop in particular seemed an unnecessary humiliation for this troubled woman, who predeceased her mother after struggling with her shifty stepfather Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt for years to have access to her ailing parent. I felt it didn’t add any further clarity to what was already clearly a troubling story.

Overall, this is an engrossing read. These women led vibrant, turbulent lives and I was left with a better understanding about who they were and how their family dynamic, and public life molded them.

Many thanks to Kensington Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue (1965)

Though awarded and appreciated in its time, I’ve never felt that A Patch of Blue (1965) has gotten the attention it deserves. As a showcase for a pair of Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winter’s best performances, a wonderful debut for the delicate Elizabeth Hartman, and a tribute to the power of kindness and generosity, it is a soul-stirring film. Though not always easy to watch, it is immensely appealing and ultimately uplifting. I recently re-watched it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

In her film debut, Elizabeth Hartman is Selina, a poor, uneducated girl who was blinded in a childhood accident. She lives in a ragged apartment with her abusive mother (Shelley Winters) and alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford in his final role). Treated like a servant, and forced to string beaded necklaces to earn her keep, Selina has experienced little of the world beyond what she hears on the radio and has received no guidance as to how to navigate life blind.

Selina eventually convinces her mother to let her make necklaces in the park. There she meets Gordon (Poitier), a friendly, educated professional, who is also black, who frequents the park during the day because he works at night. Gordon feels sorry for Selina and in his increasing efforts to help her live a better life he comes to love her. With the specter of their racial differences always with them, they increasingly look to each other for companionship and fulfillment.

As Gordon, Poitier creates a rare portrayal of a gentle man with agency and ambition. He draws power from his empathy, creating a character that is romantic because he wants the woman he admires to become strong and independent. While he is often forced to become controlling in order to navigate various tricky situations, his goal is to live in harmony with Selina, his brother (a wary Ivan Dixon), and in a world that often views him with hostility.

Winters is the opposite of Poitier, relying on threats and violence to grab the things she feels life has unfairly denied her. She deservedly won a supporting actress Oscar for portraying a racist, selfish woman, who should be completely repulsive, but somehow manages to communicate a bit of the hurt and yearning within her whirlwind of anger. That Winters was devastated to have to play such a hateful, bigoted character makes her performance all the more remarkable.

It’s almost painful to watch Hartman at work. She’s so tender and fragile. Her delight in the small luxuries of life Gordon shares with her, like a carton of pineapple juice or a plate of canned peaches, is in dramatic contrast to the violence and chaos of the rest of her life.

Just like Selina, Hartman was emerging into a new world. The attention the shy actress won for her remarkable debut was difficult for her to process. She would go on to appear in several more films, but always struggled with her mental health, eventually committing suicide at the age of 43 in 1987.

Special features include a trailer for the film, a featurette about Elizabeth Hartman with behind-the-scenes footage and a glimpse at her charming screen tests, and a commentary with the film’s director Guy Green from the DVD release in which he shares pleasant memories of making the film and interesting tidbits like the fact that Hayley Mills was once in consideration for the lead.

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

Pre-code on DVD: Robert Montgomery and Sally Eilers in Made on Broadway (1933)

I’m delighted that Warner Archive has kept its promise to continue regularly releasing pre-code titles after the conclusion of its Forbidden Hollywood series. Its recent DVD release of Made on Broadway (1933) is definitely the kind of film that would have fit perfectly into one of those boxed sets. It’s a fast-moving comedy of deception with Robert Montgomery at his charming best.

Montgomery is a public-relations man who owns a club exclusively patronized by potential clients who drink free with the understanding that they will likely later be paying much more for his services. He fancies himself a clever guy who gets all the angles. However, he finds himself humbled when he rescues a young working class girl (Sally Eilers) who throws herself into the river.

Instead of batting eyes at her hero, Eilers tells the press that she saved Montgomery. Impressed by her wit and nerve, he decides to build her up as a socialite, with the help of his remarkably helpful ex-wife (Madge Evans). As he falls for his creation, Eilers finds herself in trouble, and keeps him on his toes with her unpredictable and increasingly bold schemes.

Montgomery knows that he has gotten himself mixed up with a trickster, but he can’t back away, because he seems to understand on some level that he has finally found the woman he deserves. It’s amusing to watch him essentially face his own chicanery through the eyes of love. It is the perfect use of his “can’t be bothered” pre-code persona.

You never know if the volcanically-voiced Eugene Pallette is going to be working class or a millionaire; here he is the former as Montgomery’s butler. Jean Parker rounds out a charming supporting cast (Bess Flowers and Billy Gilbert also make brief appearances) and Evans projects the perfect exhausted elegance as a woman who is used to dealing with problematic men. Though mostly forgotten today, Eilers was a reliable presence in early talkies; her under-the-radar charms works well in this role where surprise is of the essence.

This is a fun, snappy entry in the pre-code universe.

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

On DVD: Doris Day in The Pajama Game (1957)

I’ve always viewed The Pajama Game (1957) as an oddity among musicals. How else can you look at a romance blossoming among workers’ strikes and labor negotiations? Compounding that is a soundtrack which mixes utterly forgettable tunes with some of the greatest classics of the genre and one outstanding dance number, choreographed by a young Bob Fosse and featuring the remarkable dancer and choreographer Carole Haney. I recently re-watched this Doris Day classic on a new DVD release from Warner Archive.

Day stars as an employee of a pajama factory who is also a leader in the employee union. Her life becomes more complicated when the employees organize to fight for better wages just as she is falling for the new superintendent (John Raitt). The workers resist, Day and Raitt tangle, and everything is resolved amidst high kicks and enthusiastic production numbers.

The Pajama Game originated on the stage and much of the original cast appears in the film, with the most notable exception being Day taking on Janis Paige’s role. You can feel that play-to the-rafters stage performer energy throughout the film. It keeps the momentum rolling through the more lackluster songs. Those tunes with sparkle are an eclectic bunch: the slinky Hernando’s Hideaway, the precision pop of Steam Heat (both led by edgy pixie Haney), and the dreamily wistful Hey There, which is good enough for two renditions: one by Raitt one by Day.

Day is reliably charming in the lead, she belts out songs with enthusiasm and alternates pleasingly between romance and indignation, but Haney is the stand-out in Pajama Game. The actress won a Tony for originating her role on Broadway and by the time she appeared in the film, it fit her like a body stocking. Of the eight films the mostly stage bound dancer made, this would be one of her only opportunities to take center stage (another notable film appearance: her featured dance with Bob Fosse in Kiss Me Kate [1953]).

Haney had been assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly early in her career, working on (and sometimes appearing in) films including On the Town (1949), Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). You can see a bit of Kelly’s elegant grace in her style, but it is secondary to her full embodiment of choreographer Bob Fosse’s tightly-wound, cool cat style. She displays this to marvelous effect as part of a dance trio in the show-stopping Steam Heat, a number so sharply modern that it hardly seems a part of the same film.

The film is an interesting mix of the nostalgic and the cutting edge, where a cheerfully corny picnic can coexist with writhing bodies in lockstep formation. It’s clearly a late-studio age musical, with a toe in the past and an eye to the future.

Special features on the DVD include a theatrical trailer and the deleted song, The Man Who Invented Love.

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

On Blu-ray: Mark Hamill and Annie Potts in Corvette Summer (1978)

A year after Star Wars (1977) brought Mark Hamill lasting fame he starred in the exponentially more modest Corvette Summer (1978). Despite the dramatic difference in setting, he plays a similarly naïve, but principled young man on a quest. It’s as if Luke Skywalker dropped into a high school auto shop after a journey from a galaxy far away. I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Hamill is Kenny, an earnest shop student on the verge of high school graduation. The big class project is a souped-up, cherry-colored Corvette Stingray, which the kids (among them an adorable Danny Bonaduce) are eager to take for a test run. They are devastated when the car is stolen mid-drive and no one more so than Kenny, who decides he must find it at all costs.

He gets a tip that the Corvette is on display in a Las Vegas casino, so he hitches his way across the desert. Instead of finding the car, he meets scrappy aspiring call girl Vanessa (Annie Potts). Though she has a slick trick van, she’s not much older than Kenny and clearly isn’t prepared for the dangerous world of hooking on the strip. When she can’t convince him to become a client, she helps him instead, as hookers with a heart of gold do in the movies.

While much of the action is played lightly, Kenny falls into disturbing territory. He becomes acquainted with violence and corruption beyond his ability to process and his confusion clouds his judgment. You might think that would be the juicy part of the proceedings, but it’s actually when the film begins to lose steam.

Hamill leaps through his early scenes with the earnestness of a half-trained puppy. He’s full of enthusiasm and only somewhat prepared for adult life. While his single mother has given him a taste of the rot in the world, he’s still endearingly eager and the energy he exudes keeps the first part of the film lively, especially when he meets Potts, who nearly steals it all away from him.

The plot begins to drag on the pair though, who really only need each other to engage an audience. Instead, they are required to march through a series of events that fail to be novel or intriguing. They’d have been ideal together in a story with less crime, more screwball action.

As it is, Hamill and Potts are worth the watch and overall the film has the warm feeling of a flick you'll always love because you saw it for the first time when you were twelve.

Bonus: Beloved character actor Dick Miller makes one of his most endearing cameos as a lucky man who is happy to spread the wealth.

The sole special feature on the disc is a trailer for the film.

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

On Blu-ray: Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft are well matched as a married couple navigating chaotic city life in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), Neil Simon’s adaptation of his own stage play. They both play from the soul, with a lack of artifice that enables them to express the complications of human nature with great clarity. I enjoyed seeing these two play off each other in a new Blu-ray release of the film from Warner Archive.

Lemmon and Bancroft are settled into empty-nester life in their fourteenth floor New York apartment when suddenly everything seems to turn sour. Lemmon loses his job, their apartment is burglarized, and the crowds, crime and noise of the city begin to overwhelm them. To top it off, on the same day the building elevator and the water service both break down. Bancroft manages to keep her cool for the most part, but Lemmon veers towards a nervous breakdown.

Throughout their trials with rude neighbors, criminals, suspected criminals (Lemmon chases a suspect, a young Sylvester Stallone, in an amusing scene in Central Park), and meddling family, Bancroft and Lemmon remain endearingly devoted to each other. Even when they fight, there’s a powerful undercurrent of love between them. In a film full of great visuals, with a sparkling script and sharp supporting cast, these two are the overwhelmingly moving, beating heart of it all. They have created loving, funny characters that have clearly grown together in their years as a couple, to the point where they are a single unit. It’s a great portrayal of a marriage.

While The Prisoner of Second Avenue taps into timeless fears about change, urban living, and the frustration of lacking control of your own circumstances, it is a fascinating time capsule as well. Though it is for the most part filmed in few locations and reflective of its roots on the stage, there are several great sequences featuring 1970s New York City. It’s worth watching just to catch a glimpse of the cars, fashion, and feel of the city in that time.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer, the vintage featurette The Making of the Prisoner of Second Avenue, and a segment from The Dinah Shore Show where the host interviews her friend Anne Bancroft. That last feature is a fascinating bit of classic talk show elegance, with its odd mix of personal chatter and professional promotion.

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

Streaming Diary: Classic Films on Hoopla

The streaming services from my city and county library are one of my favorite sources of classic films. While not every system has subscriptions to services like Kanopy and Hoopla, many do, from city and county systems to universities. While I subscribe to a handful of streaming services, I spend most of my time watching discs borrowed from the library and films on Hoopla and Kanopy. I have plenty to keep me busy!

Here are some of my latest favorites streaming on Hoopla:

That Guy Dick Miller (2015)
The recent death of prolific character actor Dick Miller makes this tender tribute to him all the more touching. With a distinctive carved-from-granite face and a plethora of cameo roles in Roger Corman and Joe Dante films, among many others, pretty much anyone who loves the movies knows this guy. Here friends, family, coworkers, and the man himself discuss his turbulent, but essentially happy life and career. I didn’t think I could love Miller any more, but the man revealed here is a truly special human being.

Amphibian Man (1962)
The title of this Soviet fantasy flick led me to expect a sci-fi creature feature like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While there are elements of sci-fi in this story of a young man who can breathe under the sea, it offers more romance and fantasy than chills. The Amphibian Man is not only a sweet guy, but also in love with a girl on land. It's a charming story.

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
I always thought this would be the perfect film for whatever the 1930s version of a Goth girl would be. Fredric March has a deliciously dangerous take on his role as Death, who as the title indicates takes a breather from retrieving souls from the mortal world. His reason: a big crush on the moodily romantic Evelyn Venable.

Gambit (1967)
There are some things about this Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine caper that haven’t aged well, but it’s still an intriguing, good-looking thriller. Caine hires MacLaine to help him steal a priceless artifact from the wealthy, and savvy, Herbert Lom. In a long opening sequence, Caine imagines a flawless, sophisticated operation that fulfills his wildest dreams. The reality that follows is messier and much more entertaining.

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
The impact of two performers as potent as Vincent Price and George Sanders playing brothers in this very loose adaptation of the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne book was almost more than I could process. It’s no surprise that Margaret Lindsay gets a bit lost here, though she is nevertheless effective herself in an unusually substantial dramatic lead.

The Red House (1947)
After struggling for years to view this beautifully bizarre country Gothic on horrible public domain prints, it is such a revelation to see a restored version. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson as brother and sister and Rory Calhoun and Julie London as the hottest twenty-something teen lovers ever, there’s a lot going on in this suspense thriller about a dark, hidden family history.

On DVD: Judith Anderson is Lady Scarface (1941)

Lady Scarface (1941) is entertaining, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of its title and star. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, I went into this crime thriller expecting Judith Anderson to dominate the action as the titular criminal. This was not the case, and it was hard not to pine for what could have been.

A year after her career-defining performance as Ms. Danvers in Rebecca (1941), Judith Anderson is suitably tough and commanding as lady gang leader Slade. Every time she appears, there’s that electrical anticipation of things getting a little more operatic. She doesn’t have enough screen time to build her character though. You spend most of the running time wondering when she’s coming back.

I also couldn’t help wishing that this film had been made in the pre-code era with Anderson still in the lead. As a less glamorous version of the kind of gangster character Joan Blondell played in Blondie Johnson (1933), she would have been dynamite. As it is, she only appeared in Blood Money (1933) during that era and didn’t really break into the movies until Rebecca, after which she alternated between film, television, and the stage for the rest of her career.

Most of the action revolves around a police lieutenant (Dennis O’Keefe) and newspaper reporter (Frances Neal) who are investigating Slade’s crimes. The plot full of mistaken identity, scams, and scheming is reminiscent of Wanted! Jane Turner (1936), a mildly entertaining thriller, but that film had a bit more sizzle between its leads Lee Tracy and Gloria Stuart. O’Keefe and Neal are cute enough together, though they might have been more engaging if, again, I weren’t constantly wondering when Anderson was coming back.

Overall this is an engaging film that moves along nicely, but it’s impossible to ignore that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a vehicle for Anderson.

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.

On DVD/Blu-ray: Martin Sheen in The Believers (1987)

Based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is a horror thriller that tackles two favorite 1980s punching bags: Afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo and the wealthy. Martin Sheen stars as a police psychiatrist dealing with the sudden, traumatic passing of his wife who suddenly finds himself battling a religious cult with an unseemly interest in his son. I recently viewed the film on a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films.

The film opens with his wife’s bizarre death scene, which consists of a perfectly-timed sequence of horrific bad luck. It has little to do with the events of the remainder of the film, and could even stand on its own as a horror short, but it effectively sets a tone of dread which fills every moment of The Believers. It also has a sensational, over-the-top feeling which seems to be specific to a certain type of 1980s thriller and characterizes the shock moments throughout the film.

At the core of the plot is fear of faiths like the voodoo religion, also seen at the time in films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Angel Heart (1987). For the most part the film takes an incurious, one-note approach to the faith, setting it firmly in “other” territory so that presumably it is easier to view it as the practice of evil, selfish cultists. This is a world away from the more nuanced perspective presented in films like Maya Deren’s documentary featuring the religion, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) and that appears to be the intention.

Sheen first encounters the rituals of the cult following his return to New York with his son. While in Central Park, they find bloody animal remains and beads abandoned after a ritual gathering. In the chaos of the discovery, he doesn’t notice his son pocketing one of the mysterious beads. 

Sheen's Latina housekeeper (Carla Pinza) does notice the bead, in addition to other warning signs. He forbids her from performing the rituals, more "other" activity that frightens him, and fires her when she persists in her struggle to keep him out of the cult’s hands.

Not long after the incident in the park, the NYPD begins to investigate a series of grisly child murders that appear to be the result of ritual sacrifice. With guidance from a hysterical cop played with manic energy by Jimmy Smits (the cult took his badge, so he knows he’s doomed), he begins to research voodoo and the brujería-inspired Santería faith apparently connected with the murders. In his off-hours, he romances his landlady (Helen Shaver), who in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes becomes the unfortunate victim of one of the cult’s spells.

Eventually Sheen connects the wealthy class of NYC with the crimes and finds connections to the cult in his own life. It’s not a set-up that rewards too much thought. The Believers is best approached as a vehicle for thrills, which it does offer, if on a somewhat uneven basis. It will appeal most to those who love that particular kind of paranoid, sensational thriller that thrived in the eighties.

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

On Blu-ray: Richard Roundtree in Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973)

I was thrilled when Warner Archive announced it would be releasing the two sequels to the original Shaft (1971): Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973) on Blu-ray. I’d wanted to see these films for years. They ended up being interesting viewing and not what I expected when it came to plot and style.

Both films look great, because the restorations didn’t iron out the grain that gives these films added warmth and grit. I know it shouldn’t surprise me that a Gordon Parks film would be so gorgeous, his visual skill as photographer and filmmaker are immense, but I was especially stunned by the color composition in Shaft’s Big Score. These films will always be filed under Blaxploitation, but they are really gorgeously-produced, high-quality action films and the Blu-rays reveal that beautifully.

The John Shaft in these sequels is still tough, charismatic and resourceful, but the character doesn’t have the same edge. There was always a flicker of righteous anger in the 1971 Shaft. You don’t see the man who walks through traffic shouting at taxi cabs here. He’s more serene and much nicer to the ladies too. While I missed the zing of that brand of Shaft, it was interesting to see Roundtree develop the character and move him subtly in a different direction.

Shaft’s Big Score was my favorite of the two films. It’s got a slow build up, and lacks the riveting, gritty street-bound feel of the original, but it entertains in its own slick way. Roundtree seems more settled into the action hero mold and more appealing because of his gentler take on relating to the female sex. He even relies on one of his ladies to take the wheel during the climactic chase scene, which becomes increasingly ridiculous, and entertaining, as it progresses.

That chase scene is emblematic of what makes Shaft’s Big Score different. It’s less a document of a man working in the streets and more about building up to blood-pumping action. Roundtree is able to stay true to the essence of John Shaft, but when you add a boat and a helicopter to your chase scenes, it is definitely a different game.

Keep your eyes open during the casino scene to see the always distinguished director Parks in a cameo.

Shaft Goes to Africa is my least favorite of the original trio, but I appreciated the willingness to try something new with the character. It was a good gamble to assume that Roundtree was the true draw of the series and that he was versatile enough to play Shaft in a different milieu. Here, instead of a street-smart private dick, he’s more of a Bond-type hero fighting against human trafficking in Africa. There’s even a Q-like scene where he gets a custom-made weapon.

This film never quite falls into a rhythm though. Its story always feels a bit scattered. There are many good to great moments, but they don’t flow together. Many of the great moments are due to Vonetta McGee, who matches the charisma of her leading man and is the strongest female character to grace the series.

Overall, the original Shaft series fascinates me. Roundtree consistently proves his ability to mesmerize in any circumstances and he benefits from the essentially high production values and strong direction he receives here. While they vary in quality, there isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

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

Streaming Diary: 8 Classic Films to Watch on Kanopy

Lately I’ve found the free library service Kanopy to be a satisfying destination for streaming classic films. In addition to offering a significant number of Criterion Collection releases, it offers an intriguing mix of Hollywood and international classics. Here are some of my favorites. All titles link to the film:

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness plays an astonishing nine members of the wealthy D'Ascoyne clan in this dark comedy about an aspiring gentleman (Dennis Price) who plots to kill all of them because he is next in line for the family fortune. He is desperately in love with the sensuous Sibella, played by Joan Greenwood with that purr of a voice that always melts men into a puddle at her feet. As impressive as Guinness’ accomplishment is here, it is Greenwood who weaves the most enduring spell.

The Queen of Spades (1949)

This haunting fantasy-horror drama of greed and destruction was long thought lost when it was rediscovered and restored in 2009. Anton Walbrook is a working class soldier in 1800s Russia who seeks wealth and revenge against the ruling class by attempting to steal a card game trick from an elderly countess (Edith Evans). She refuses to share her hard-won secret, for she sold her soul to the devil to get it. There’s spooky feel of dread to the entire film which sharpens as what has essentially played as a drama slowly slides into the supernatural.

The Sissi Trilogy: 
Sissi (1955) 
Sissi: The Young Empress (1956)
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
It took me way too long to watch the effortlessly charming Romy Schneider in her breakout role as Empress Elizabeth ("Sissi") of Austria. Being able to finally see the trilogy on Kanopy was the moment I realized what an excellent addition to my viewing rotation this service was going to be. This cheerful, brilliantly-colored take on the royals of Habsburg has very little to do with the despair and scandal-ridden life of the real Sissi and company, but audiences have embraced the way it polishes history and it is a hugely entertaining series.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
Jean-Pierre Melville takes on film noir in an American setting with this lightly-developed story of a French reporter and photographer searching Manhattan for a missing French UN delegate. The story and performances are only somewhat compelling, but the location photography in mid-century New York City elevates it in every way.

That Man from Rio (1964) and Up to His Ears (1965)
Though I’ve seen Jean-Paul Belmando in all kinds of films, I never took him for a comic action hero. After watching him in this pair of funny, romantic adventure flicks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the kind of role he was born to play. In both films he plays an essentially ordinary man thrown into a dangerous quest in an exotic location. His romantic lead in That Man from Rio is the radioactively charming Françoise Dorléac, who practically steals the movie. Ursula Andress is less charismatic as his female sidekick in Up to His Ears, though she does have more comedic skill that she’s generally given credit for. Supposedly Steven Spielberg found inspiration for the Raiders of the Lost Ark in Rio and that essentially describes the spirit of the films.

On DVD/Blu-ray: Annette and Frankie in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

In a lot of ways How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) is a typical beach film. It’s got you-couldn’t-do-that-today lady ogling, horny, but ultimately unsuccessful beach boys, cheerful musical outbursts, and a sprinkling of old Hollywood stars that were presumably meant to draw parents to the movie theater. What makes it fascinating is the way it adjusts the formula to accommodate the personal circumstances of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, here appearing in the last of the popular beach movies they made together. I recently enjoyed the film on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.

In their final pairing, Funicello and Avalon have only a few minutes of screen time together. Reportedly this is because Avalon asked for more money and the studio’s response was to cut his role down to what amounted to a beefy cameo. So instead of dancing on the beach together, Funicello pines for her man in California while Avalon is on naval reserve duty in Tahiti. There he has a witch doctor (the simultaneously cringe-worthy and amusing Buster Keaton) conjure a spell to keep her faithful to him, though he doesn’t hesitate to flirt with an island beauty himself.

Back in the US, Funicello lounges on a beach blanket, fully clothed, spending most of her time reading and eating. This was due to the actress’ pregnancy, which clearly ruled out a bikini. Instead, she flirts with Dwayne Hickman, who I will never be able to see as anyone but the unfortunate lad who falls victim to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946).

This is the kind of flick where you’ve got to switch off your brain and go with the flow. Goofy as it is, the relentless cheerfulness of the spontaneous songs, romantic entanglements, and classic actors like Mickey Rooney, Brian Donlevy, and Keaton create a sort of deluge of entertainment that is hard to resist. Even moments that should be excruciating, like the spectacle of a watery-eyed Keaton playing a Tahitian native of all things, are somehow engaging. This partly due to the charisma of the stars, but also because everyone is so fully committed to this bizarre world of constant play.

As a genre classic with a few odd quirks, this is lively entertainment.

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

On DVD: Wallace Beery and Dean Stockwell in The Mighty McGurk (1947)

Wallace Beery picks up where he left off with Jackie Cooper in the 1930s in The Mighty McGurk (1947), a drama of an ex-boxer in the Bowery who finds himself responsible for a British orphan (Dean Stockwell). Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, if you didn’t see the extra mileage on Beery, it would be easy to mistake this film for also being a product of the thirties.

Beery is the titular McGurk, nicknamed Slag, retired from the ring and making a living as a bouncer at a saloon for the morally crooked Mike Glenson (Edward Arnold). His pawnshop owner sort-of-girlfriend Mamie Steeple (Aline MacMahon) keeps him from starving as he looks to open his own place. When Slag goes to retrieve Mike’s daughter (Dorothy Patrick) at the docks after a boat journey, he tips off her former love, and his former boxing protégé Johnny Burden (a young and adorable Cameron Mitchell). Mike sent his daughter away to end their relationship, but Slag approves of the relationship.

At the docks, Slag finds himself suddenly the custodian of Nipper (Stockwell), who has been shipped to his uncle. He is pressured into finding the man for the lad, but soon finds that Nipper would rather stay with him. While he deals with what he hopes to be temporary parenthood, Mike is up to no good, and Mamie is losing her patience with the commitment shy McGurk.

Every element of this movie, from the script to the 1800s setting could be dropped right into the 1930s and seem perfectly in place. Beery, MacMahon and Arnold could also have even been plausible in the same roles, as they would have had the chops to find the necessary world weariness in their earlier years.

The big difference is in Stockwell, who certainly had his cutesy moments, but for the most part was a more sober and realistic child performer than Cooper. He doesn’t have the same chemistry with Beery as Cooper did, but he’s also pleasant for being a little lighter on the sugar than the typical juvenile star.

Though I respect his ability, I’m not a fan of Beery. I’ve always felt that too much of his real life nastiness has always seeped into his performances to make them very palatable for me. He appealed to me here though. It’s as if age settled him a bit, making him seem more pleasant and shaving a bit of the ham off his acting style.

It’s a cute flick, briskly paced and essentially what you’d expect from taking a gander at the poster.

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.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

June’s Podcast Roundup is another varied mix of familiar and new-to-me podcasts. If you’ve got a podcast to share (including your own), please tell me about it in the comments. I’m always up for fresh voices! All episode titles link to the show:

Ticklish Business
Stagecoach (1939) and the Complicated Legacy of John Wayne
May 29, 2019

I got a little nudge from the creators of this podcast in the comments section of my last monthly roundup to be included this month, but honestly, I love this show. Yes, I take Ticklish Business for granted, probably because it was one of the first shows I listened to on a regular basis. This is a great episode because host Kristen Lopez is joined by both of her rotating co-hosts Samantha Ellis and Drea Clark. They have a thought-provoking conversation about the Ford western Stagecoach (1939) and John Wayne which encompasses how Wayne has been a part of their personal lives and the culture at large, in addition to the western genre and the magic of Wayne’s breakout film. They also dive into the tricky business of problematic films and stars.

Just the Discs
Cleopatra Jones Super Fly!
April 22, 2019

Just the Discs is another one of those podcasts that I tend to take for granted because it’s been a part of my rotation for so long. Brian Sauer (also of Pure Cinema Podcast) is an excellent host though, an unpretentious, knowledgeable champion for movies, and especially those that tend to get forgotten. I especially love it when he has Stephanie Crawford as a guest, because they have a perfectly complementary knowledge of film and a nice, easygoing banter. Here they discuss the Cleopatra Jones movies, touching on what makes them so remarkable and sharing lots of interesting background details about their production. They also talk about the first Super Fly (1972) film.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror: The Podcast
Tippi Hedren
May 31, 2019

I’ve loved every episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror podcast, which is a companion to the AMC show. Here he shares the full interviews he conducted with the greats of the genre, which are excerpted in the series. My favorite episode so far has been his interview with Tony Todd, but fans of classic film will especially appreciate this interview with Tippi Hedren. The actress goes into great detail about her experience making The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock. She does a great job handling the more controversial aspects of her association with the director, acknowledging the distress his obsession with her caused in a practical and cool-headed way. Hedren also discusses Roar and her horror favorites.

The Film Programme
Mind the Gap: Barbara Stanwyck
February 12, 2019

I’ve been generally enjoying going through the archives of this new-to-me show from BBC Radio, but I was especially impressed by this short episode in which the hosts discuss the films of Barbara Stanwyck. “Mind the Gap” refers to gaps in one’s knowledge of various areas of cinema. I liked the titles they pick here, especially the underseen comedy The Mad Miss Manton.

I Blame Dennis Hopper
Karen Hannsberry (Film Noir)
May 30, 2019

I had to feature Ileanna Douglas’ podcast yet again, because my dear friend Karen Hannsberry, editor of the fabulous Dark Pages noir newsletter, was recently her guest. The pair had an interesting conversation about film noir and Karen’s writing about the genre. This is a must listen for any film fan new to noir and looking for title suggestions. As a big fan of noir, I found a few new things to watch myself listening to this episode.

The Movies That Made Me
Leonard Maltin
June 11, 2019

In an episode recorded live at MaltinFest, Leonard Maltin shares a list of movies that he thinks more people should know, one from each decade of the past 100 years. His choices are delightfully eclectic and, as always, he has a lot to share about the history of these films and the industry people he has met throughout his career. His comments about Jerry Lewis were especially interesting.

Book Review-- Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant

Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

It is comforting to know, that at this moment 102-year-old Olivia de Havilland is living in luxury in a Parisian hotel. With her bright white hair, pearls, and velvet caftans, she still entertains visitors, and shares pink champagne with them. That is behavior befitting the last of the greats of classic Hollywood. In a new book about de Havilland, Victoria Amador draws on her personal relationship with the actress, which includes indulging in sparkling wine together, to tell the story of her life, which was remarkable even for a movie star.

With her brown, doe eyes and sweet smile, it can be easy to forget de Havilland's iron will. That gentle beauty belies the determination of a woman who was before her time in the way she fought for career, independence, and happiness on her own terms. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment beyond acting is a legal victory she won early in her carer, known as The de Havilland Decision, in which she challenged the studio’s ability to add time onto seven-year contracts for suspensions; a win which changed the fabric of Hollywood and made life better for generations of film workers.

She had agency in her personal life as well. De Havilland made her career a priority for years, having affairs with the likes of John Huston and Jimmy Stewart and earning herself the title of “bachelor”.  When her eventual marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich didn’t work out, she got out with a minimum of fuss and with custody of her beloved son. When her second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante fizzled into a friendship, she crafted a modern, friendly arrangement for the sake of her children that worked brilliantly. In the end she managed to have a strong career and a satisfying personal life, all on her own terms.

Amador covers all of these events, but she focuses on de Havilland’s career and how she fought to play roles with meaning on the stage, screen, and television. Popular success was never enough for the actress; she wanted the challenge and glory of great parts. By the time she got them, she felt she’d aged out of screen stardom and turned her focus to family. It was not quite the end for her though and she had the luxury of being selective and filming what she pleased in the final years of her career.

The book is organized in an unusual way, it is essentially chronological, but it has chapters devoted to the core elements of her life, like her relationship with frequent costar Errol Flynn, her legendary appearance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her notoriously rocky relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine. Amador seems to be aware that readers will skip to these topics that have so often been the subject of juicy gossip and she approaches them all with a steady perspective, challenging what rumors she can, but granting de Havilland her wish to keep some things private. She strikes a good balance between “here’s what happened” and “none of your business.”

For the most part I appreciated the way these focused chapters gave Amador the space to fully examine the major elements of de Havilland’s life. The necessary repetition of facts and events in the more general chapters could be a bit tedious and confusing, but for the most part the narrative flow dips back and forth in time with ease. I was a little more disturbed by a couple of instances where her sources seemed unreliable: one where she refers to something learned on the notoriously undependable Internet Movie Database, another where she admits that her source was "admittedly dubious," but went ahead and shared what they said anyway.

Amador has had the opportunity to meet with de Havilland multiple times over the years and has maintained a friendly correspondence with the actress. As a result, she has gotten many direct quotes from her which are as interesting for the character they reveal as they are for the clarification of various details. I appreciated that while the author clearly wanted to be respectful of her friend and subject, she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her flaws. The book could have easily been a hagiography written by an adoring fan, but she seems to understand that kind of whitewashing would be a disservice to such a forthright actress.

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

On Blu-ray: Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950)

It feels appropriate that Judy Garland’s last MGM musical, the farm-set Summer Stock (1950) was one of those “Let’s put on a show” flicks, even if she was swinging with Gene Kelly instead of Mickey Rooney. Garland comes full circle in a performance made complex by her personal struggles and powerhouse talent. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds great.

It’s a stretch, but Garland and Gloria De Haven are just about believable as sisters who run their family farm. They’re struggling to pay the bills, which leads the stagestruck De Haven to rent out the barn to a theatrical troupe that wants to put on a show there. Garland is skeptical, but of course is eventually seduced by the thrills of the performing life and the charms of Gene Kelly, the group’s leader.

Garland’s involvement with Summer Stock was tainted by drug use, illness, and absences so disruptive that she was fired by the studio when production wrapped. That she made it through at all has much to do with the support of Kelly, who reportedly even faked an injury to give her time off on a particularly rough day. He had always been grateful for the help she gave him when they costarred in his screen debut, For Me and My Gal (1942) and stayed loyal to her throughout the rest of her life.

It is heartbreaking the way Garland’s struggle translates to the screen. She doesn’t look well. However, it is a testament to her remarkable talent that despite being physically and mentally strained, she still manages to pull off the performance, giving the role emotional resonance which could have even been aided by her strife. 

The studio decided a livelier ending was needed for the film months after production wrapped. In a triumphant coda, Garland returned from a vacation slim, healthy, and fit to perform Get Happy, which was not only an improved ending, but one of the greatest numbers of her career.

Kelly has plenty of opportunity to innovate here, his best moment in the You, Wonderful You number where his dance partners are squeaky floor boards and a scrap of newspaper. He’s also good fun with Phil Silvers (who doesn’t get enough credit for his musical chops) in the delightfully silly Heavenly Music, where their backup singers are an increasingly growing ensemble of barking, howling dogs.

Summer Stock
is a vital piece of MGM musical history, imbued with some of its greatest triumphs and deepest tragedies.

Special features include a featurette about the film, the cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, a Pete Smith short, a theatrical trailer and the audio for the outtake song Fall in Love.

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

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: Mexican Superstars Maria Felix and Pedro Armendariz in Enamorada (1946)

Before I put SIFF to rest for another year, I wanted to share one more film I enjoyed at the festival. It is the Mexican drama Enamorada (1946), starring María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz. For years I’ve admired the Mexican superstar Félix’s laser-focused gaze in photos from the forties and fifties and wondered about her films. I was delighted to finally see why she is a legend in her home country. I’d seen and enjoyed Armendáriz in the Hollywood films Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948), but here I saw him for the first time in a leading role.

Félix is the staunchly feminist daughter of the richest man in her town and Armendáriz is a revolutionary who kidnaps him to try to force him to give him money before he kills him. When he also falls in love-at-first-sight with Félix, he decides call off the firing squad in the hopes that returning the old man will give him a chance with his daughter. Of course that is a ridiculous plan. Of course it works.

In his introduction to the film, SIFF programmer Marcus Gorman mentioned that Félix had only done European films outside of Mexico. She understandably felt that the roles available to her in Hollywood would be too demeaning. While Armendáriz found essentially dignified roles in American films, he rarely had the chance to star. One starring role Armendáriz did win in Hollywood was in The Torch (1950), a remake of this film, opposite Paulette Goddard. It is likely that Félix would not have had the opportunities he did, and that at best she would probably have ended up in supporting roles similar to those Katy Jurado did if she wanted to keep her dignity as well.

Enamorada is light on plot, focusing more on the fireworks between Armendáriz and Félix. For the most part this is satisfactory, though occasionally the pace slackened and I wished for something a little meatier. It is a gorgeous film though, with several beautifully-shot scenes in a cathedral that are effectively filmed to show the all-encompassing power of the church in this conservative community.

Armendáriz and Félix are the true draw of the film and they are a lively pair. They both have eternally raised left eyebrows and fire in the belly, but other than that, they are contradictory in a novel way. This is because in a way they switch traditional gender roles. With his long eyelashes and tender eyes, Armendáriz is almost pretty; as ruthless as he can be, he tends to lead with his heart in a traditionally feminine way. On the other hand, Félix is more handsome than pretty and with the liberal use of slaps and firm determination to have things her own way; she is somehow vigorously feminist in a time and culture where that was rare and her behavior would have been seen as masculine.

This odd juxtaposition gives the film its energy. The pair has great chemistry in their comic bits and the subtle role reversal adds an extra layer of interest in these scenes. When they inevitably connect, it makes sense, because in thoroughly irritating each other, they have also awakened themselves to new possibilities.

I’m glad I finally got the chance to see Félix in action. It was amazing to see her for the first time on the big screen. I would love to see more of her and Armendáriz’ work in the films they made in their home country. Maybe another screening next year SIFF?

Streaming Diary: Discovering Experimental Masterpieces for Free at UbuWeb

As a lover of experimental film, I’m a big fan of UbuWeb, a no-budget educational website founded by poet Kenneth Goldsmith to be a resource for all things avant-garde. My favorite part of the site is its massive page of links to films, most of them shorts, but some feature-length films. Arranged by filmmaker, the clips come from various sources online and can sometimes be of low quality, but the page is still a great way to explore the work of different artists and see new, wonderful things.

While the offerings can get as wild as the imagination, there are several artists here of interest to classic film fans. These are some of my favorites:

There are four short films by the recently departed Agnes Varda, including the fascinating Black Panthers (1968), which she made during her time living in the United States. There’s also an interview she did with Susan Sontag in 1967.

The Orson Welles page includes his eight-minute first film The Hearts of Age (1934) and a documentary about his life that was approved by his companion Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995)

I didn’t even know that Les Horizons Mort (1951), an eight-minute student film by Jacques Demy was available for viewing until I saw it on UbuWeb.

Jean Cocteau’s  page includes collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter, 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957), a fascinating short about the images he painted on the walls of a French villa, and a short documentary about his life.

There’s also a couple of shorts from the early days of film: a live action comedy about a pair of dentures with a life of their own from Emile Cohl and the gorgeous Danse Serpentine (1896) from the Lumière brothers.

This site was also my introduction to decades of shorts by Portrait of Jason (1967) director Shirley Clarke: Dance In the Sun (1953), Bridges-Go-Round (1958), A Scary Time (1960), Savage / Love (1981), and Tongues (1982).

My favorite part of the Salvador Dali offerings on UbuWeb is the extensive list of links to his television appearances, including advertisements. 

If you watch anything on this list, check out the unusual animation of Tadanori Yokoo, a multi-faceted artist who dabbled a bit in film. Look out for bizarre cameos from Elizabeth Taylor, Alain Delon, and Brigitte Bardot.

There’s so much else to discover on UbuWeb. Like I said, it gets as wild as the imagination. If you’re feeling adventurous, I highly recommend exploring some more.

On Blu-ray: Tamara Dobson as the Heroic Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The first time I watched Black Panther (2018) and saw Danai Gurira in full warrior garb, grasping a spear and riding the top of a car with blazing confidence, I thought to myself, “There’s Cleopatra!” It immediately brought me back to an early scene in Cleopatra Jones (1973) where the titular U.S. Special Agent stands astride the belt of a baggage carousel as she sneaks up on the hapless henchmen she’s about to pulverize. When she follows up on the phone with a police captain, he notably doesn’t ask right away if she is okay, and when he does, he says it like he already knows the answer. After all, no one ever asked Charles Bronson that question.

There aren’t many heroines as uncompromisingly powerful as Tamara Dobson was in this classic action film, certainly not many at all starring black women. It’s a great film: entertaining, stylish and expert in weaving a strong social message into its fast-paced action, but I’ll always love it most for the power of its star.

Now available in a good-looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently rewatched this amazing film. As much as it is of its time, it is still ahead of the curve in the way it gives ladies, both evil and righteous, the upper hand.

Smart, strong, determined Cleopatra isn’t raped, menaced or undermined by anyone. Her man (a reassuring Bernie Casey as the delightfully-named Reuben Masters) doesn’t tell her to settle down and keep house for him. He encourages her ambitions to save the world and knows that if he didn’t approve, she wouldn’t give a damn. Even when Cleo’s finally captured, she doesn’t break a sweat and no one dares to lay hands on her with any conviction. If only this had been the start of many films with heroines who possessed her power and autonomy. Imagine what the world, and cinema, would be.

Shelley Winters is a torrent of rage as the evil boss lady Mommy. This was a magnificent period for the actress, because she ripped into her over-the-top exploitation flick roles with unselfconscious and endlessly entertaining vigor. Here she’s a horny, sloppy, magnificent mess; an outrageous Disney villain for adults. Cleopatra’s cool is the perfect counterpart to Winters’ complete lack of composure.

There is a plot. Cleopatra destroys Mommy’s poppy field in Turkey. Mommy retaliates by siccing corrupt policemen on the community home run by Reuben. Cleo returns from Turkey for revenge and a stand-off with Mommy. It’s a good framework for lots of action, one fantastic car chase, and the sight of Ms. Jones parading around in outrageous costumes that reinforce her superiority over anyone who dares to try her.

I wish there were more films with heroines as uncompromising as Cleopatra Jones. I’m as grateful for this film as I am entertained by it.

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