On Blu-ray: Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint in The Stalking Moon (1969)

I went into the western thriller The Stalking Moon (1969) knowing nothing about it and came out the other side feeling unsettled. It is of its time in the deep certainty it shows in its morals, which can make it a difficult watch. The film recently made its Blu-ray debut on Warner Archive.

The Stalking Moon opens with a group of Army officers shooting into the air to waken a tribe of nomadic Apaches. As the men proceed to line up the abruptly roused group like cattle, a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) in the group speaks to attract their attention. They learn that she was kidnapped a decade ago and the silent boy beside her is her son (Noland Clay).

Frightened and barely able to speak, the woman identifies herself as Sarah Carver and begs to be taken away quickly, as she fears Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), the notorious warrior who has fathered her child will come to harm her and take away their son. Sam Varner (Gregory Peck), a retiring Army scout, decides to take them with him to his ranch, where she can work as his cook. While they make it to his home in safety, Sam’s longtime friend, the half-Indian Nick Tana (Robert Forster) comes to warn him that Salvaje has been tracking him and that he has left a trail of bodies behind him in his rage-infused quest to find his son.

There were things in this film I found difficult to stomach that I could accept to a degree as an accurate depiction of the times, from the way the Native people were treated in the opening scene, to the assumption among the white people that Sarah’s young son would do better with them. Salvaje, who is presented as a speechless brute, was more upsetting. All that is revealed of him is that he is a killer. There is no character development or even more than a fleeting glance at his face.

As Salvaje rolls around on the ground with Peck in the climactic battle, dressed in a long vest made of bear fur, it is clear that we are meant to view him as an animal. Even coming out of decades of films with insulting Native stereotypes, this struck me as especially unpleasant. I haven’t read the T.V. Olsen book upon which the film was based, so I don’t know how much of this perspective comes from the filmmakers, but it is definitely enforced by them. I found this hard to understand, as director Robert Mulligan and Peck had worked together so effectively on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Overall, The Stalking Moon is well-crafted and solidly-acted, with stunning scenery, but ultimately it is lackluster. Some of the best thrillers have voiceless villains and protagonists, but when so many of the key characters are that way a film needs to be exceedingly well-made to work. You begin to fully understand how dull the film is when Forster appears at the halfway point adding much-needed life to the proceedings with his wisecracking and lively patter. After enjoying a scene where he playfully attempts to teach Sarah’s son how to count in English, I wished I could have seen his story instead or perhaps get some insight into that little boy with the soulful eyes once he develops his own voice.

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

While I am in the habit of celebrating black excellence in my podcast round-ups, we are living in a difficult, but remarkable moment, one which I hope leads to positive change and justice, and in response I wanted to send a little more love out there this month by focusing entirely on black hosts and guests.

While they don’t focus on classic movies, I also recommend these podcasts about movies and culture which center black voices: The TreatmentStill Processing, Black Men Can’t Jump In Hollywood, The Curvy Critic, and Bad Romance (RIP Slate: Represent and Another Round).

Enjoy the round-up. Titles link to episodes:

The Black Film Space Podcast
Rachel Moseley-Wood on 1950’s Caribbean Cinema
June 8, 2020

This wasn’t so much a podcast episode as an engrossing lecture about the Jamaican Film Unit and the way films were made, distributed, and viewed in the mid-century Caribbean. Moseley-Wood is a lecturer at the University of West Indies and author of Show Us as We Are: Place, Nation & Identity in Jamaican Film. She had a lot to share in this incredibly informative hour.

Micheaux Mission
Night of the Living Dead
October 16, 2019

If you want to get right to the movie discussion, start this episode at about 28 minutes in. However, be forewarned that you will miss an amusing discussion of classic TV westerns. Hosts Len Webb and Vince Williams, self-billed as the Men of Micheaux, are on a mission to “watch and review every black feature film released,” so while they do not focus entirely on studio-age classics, they do cover many of these films. I had to go right to their episode about Night of the Living Dead (1968), as I’m always interested in hearing different takes on this influential film. Webb and Williams have a great time together and they know how to shine a light on the most intriguing aspects of a movie. I was especially fascinated by their discussion of the way the zombies looked in Romero’s film. I can’t wait to see what they had to say about The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

Switchblade Sisters
Blacula with Jezebel Director Numa Perrier
July 4, 2019

My favorite thing about this episode is how director Numa Perrier characterizes the AIP production of Blacula (1972). Instead of falling into the easy opinion of classifying it as solely camp, she appreciates the tragic love story within the exploitation trappings of the film. She also recognizes the grandeur of star William Marshall, who played an especially cultured vampire and always seemed like he’d be most at home performing King Lear.

The Movies That Made Me
Floyd Norman
June 9, 2020

Legendary Disney animator Floyd Norman bursts with love for his craft and the movies. I saw it when he shared his memories before a screening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) at TCM Classic Film Festival and again in the excellent documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016) which I enjoyed as a part of the TCMFF Home Edition. After years of appearing at events, Norman has become a sort of entertainer: funny, great with an anecdote, and imbued with the elegance of another time. Here he shares the films that most influenced him with hosts Josh Olson and Joe Dante. While they are titles that will be extremely familiar to classic film fans, there is an extra layer of excitement to the animator's memories of them because he saw so many of these movies first run or in revival theaters. I loved getting the perspective of a film lover who grew up long before VHS came along. He also tells an interesting story about sharing Song of the South (1946) with the delighted members of a black church and sweetly gives his approval to the live-action reboot of The Jungle Book, while politely offering honest criticism of other Disney remakes. I have the feeling anything he’d have to say would be fascinating.

Cinema Junkie
Donald Bogle
June 14, 2019

I wanted to revisit this episode from a year ago, because guest Donald Bogle shares a succinct, but thorough historical overview of black cinema. A frequent TCM guest and host and author of nine film books, he has helped me to discover many of my favorite stars, filmmakers, and movies.

Rewind: Good Books About the Black Cinematic Experience

A dapper group at a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas (Source)
I thought it would be fun to celebrate Emancipation Day/Juneteenth by remembering some of the books about the black cinematic experience that I have reviewed. I'm also going to share a few other titles that I have enjoyed over the years.

Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

There are so few full biographies of African American performers from this age; it was interesting to see Hollywood from the point of view of an actress who knew she could only go so far because of her color. McDaniel played an important role in improving conditions for her race, but while Jackson grants the actress her proper place in history, he emphasizes her humanity before the things she symbolized. This sympathetic approach elevates an otherwise straightforward biography.

Though Robeson only appeared in a handful of films, he made a significant impact as one of the few black men who played substantial roles in the movies of his era. From the experimental film Borderline (1930) and the Oscar Micheaux production of Body and Soul (1925), to his legendary performance in Show Boat (1936) and strong British films such as Jericho (1937), his influence was widespread. While his cinematic performances were for the most part a sideline to the rest of his career, I felt there was sufficient coverage of his roles to satisfy movie fans.

Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans

The story of black victory at the Oscars is complicated: a saga of small steps forward, but often uneasy circumstances surrounding those gains. Winning isn’t just a matter of earning recognition, but also a reflection of what kinds of stories, roles, and stars get rewarded. In a new book, Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans, Frederick Gooding, Jr. approaches the subject with clarity and compassion, acknowledging progress, while analyzing the quality of those advancements.

Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights, 1976-2016

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.

I haven't reviewed these books, but they're all fascinating and have been highly influential in expanding my film education and molding my taste in movies:

On Blu-ray: A Magnificent Restoration of the Two-Strip Horror Flick The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

My introduction to the pre-code horror flick Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) came from the book that provided most of my early film education, 500 Great Films, by Daniel and Susan Cohen. The brief passage dedicated to the movie revealed that it was lost for twenty-five years and over that time, “developed the reputation of being a masterpiece.” This was apparently was not found to be true upon its rediscovery, though it still had a lot to offer, enough to be included among “500 Great Films.”

I can see why audiences could have been underwhelmed the newly unearthed film: it’s a horror movie with half of its running time devoted to a high-spirited, wisecracking reporter trying to unravel the titular mystery. Picture a movie with the pep of a Gold Diggers flick without the musical numbers and with a healthy helping of Grand Guignol folded in. It’s an important film though: highly influential in both the horror genre and in the development of the lady reporter archetype, and as can be seen in a beautifully restored version of the film now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, a striking example of the short-lived two-strip Technicolor process.

Lionel Atwell stars as Ivan Igor, the talented sculptor who creates a collection of stunningly realistic wax figures. When the museum that houses his figures is set ablaze and his masterpieces melt away, the artist resorts to desperate measures to rebuild his life’s work. Fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) becomes suspicious of the mysterious Igor’s methods and begins to investigate, while he develops an obsession with her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray), also the girlfriend of one of his sculptors (Allen Vincent). The reason? She is a dead ringer for his most lamented loss, a masterful rendering of Marie Antoinette. While Florence snoops around Igor’s basement and banters with her editor (Frank McHugh), Charlotte falls more deeply into danger.

Two-strip Technicolor is a great process for horror, its wash of seawater green and petal pink lends an eerie, otherworldly appearance to a film. Here it is most effective in the gallery scenes, where several live models were enlisted to stand in for wax figures that melted too quickly under the hot lights required for color filming. They briefly blink, purse their lips, or sway, adding to a sense of unease and the feeling that you can’t believe what you see.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film’s combination of horror and comedy if the journalists had been anyone but Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh. Aside from being irresistible in any setting, they appear worn enough around the edges to make you believe that they’ve seen plenty of horrors and would be able to crack wise in the face of a situation as startling as this one. While Fay Wray was clearly hired to scream and look pretty, she’s too charismatic to be a passive horror doll; she plays her character with intelligence and gravity, despite having to go over-the-top with her screams, clearly a directive of director Michael Curtiz. For all the death and destruction he causes, Atwell is not entirely creepy in his role; you consistently feel the pain of his artistic loss, as unsympathetic as he is in the end.

Curtiz populated his film with a cast of fascinating supporting characters and bit players, creating a lived-in feeling of realism. His camera smoothly glides through his remarkable sets with a calm eye on the bizarre proceedings. Even in a clearly perilous scene like the burning of the wax museums, where it is obvious the actors are actually in danger, Curtiz’ camera stops to observe, watching the eyes slide down a waxy skull with as much attention as the battle taking place in the foreground.

The special features on Blu-ray are especially robust for a Warner Archive release. They include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray, which is essentially an interview with the actress’ daughter and biographer Victoria Riskin, who provides great background and analysis of her mother’s career. There are two commentary tracks: one with Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rhode and the other with Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which has includes the added bonus of audio clips from reviews with Wray and Farrell. There’s also a brief featurette about the restoration, which in several comparison shots shows how ragged the film has been for the past several decades and how remarkable it is to finally be able to view it as intended.

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

Book Review: An Mexican Immigrant Becomes a Movie Star in The Five Acts of Diego León

The Five Acts of Diego León
Alex Espinoza
LARB Libros, 2019 (originally published 2013)

I’m a fan of fiction set in the classic age of Hollywood, and The Five Acts of Diego León, a 2013 novel which was recently re-released in paperback somewhat scratches that itch. This story of a Mexican immigrant who makes a name for himself in the era bridging silents to talkies satisfies as a tale of hardship and glamour in a brutal industry, but is less compelling when it comes to its central character.

Diego’s story begins with his impoverished early childhood in rural Mexico. He is the son of a revolutionary and a disgraced society woman. When his mother dies, his great aunt Elva raises him, and teaches him the value of his heritage while his father remains absent. When he is eventually orphaned, Elva sends him to his snobbish maternal grandparents in the city of Morelia.

In Morelia he finds respectability, security, and in a family friend a mentor who encourages his interest in performing arts, though the latter is against the wishes of his grandparents who envision a life for him in the family business. With his material needs met, Diego begins to dream bigger, beyond the life of administrative tasks and the arranged marriage his grandfather has planned for him. He escapes to Hollywood, where he once again experiences poverty, but eventually finds success as an actor. Attaining that dream is not what he expected though; he remains unsettled.

Of the five acts that make up Diego’s story, the first two are the most compelling. Here he is a kind-hearted boy with curiosity and ambition. He seems to develop a strong moral core thanks to the guidance of his Aunt Elva.

This does not prove to be the case in the second half of the book, where Diego becomes a different person: self-absorbed, empty, and almost entirely inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Ambition devours him. In some ways the bold portrayal of this deeply flawed character is fascinating, but in the end he comes off as not just a man who has lost his way, but essentially soulless.

There are ample reasons presented for Diego’s behavior: the struggle to survive, the pain of being a homosexual man in a society that does not allow it, and the reality that he must deny his racial heritage if he wishes to be a star. I could understand his disillusionment once he attained fame and fortune, especially when he realized how ephemeral those things can be, but ultimately he was so lacking in passion that I lost interest in his fate. I shifted my focus to the many people he hurt and wanted to know more about them.

I was most intrigued by Espinoza’s reimagining of early Hollywood. He beautifully evokes the energy of the town, studio life, and the people who struggled to thrive there. I also enjoyed his dramatization of that early talkie phenomenon: parallel productions filmed in different languages. Inspired by the dual productions of Dracula (1930), where the English language version was filmed during the day and a Spanish version at night, Espinoza shines a light on the challenges of this unusual and short-lived aspect of movie-making.

While I didn’t always fully engage with Diego, I enjoyed his story and the world Espinoza built around him.

Many thanks to LARB Lbros for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Ustinov in Beau Brummell (1954)

Of all the screen adaptations of Beau Brummell, the 1954 MGM production is the most lavish. With grand settings, gorgeous costumes, and attractive stars, it is drawn directly from the studio’s basic blueprint for glossy historical dramas. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds sharp and clean.

Stewart Granger stars in the title role of the outspoken influencer of policy and fashion who insulted and then befriended the Prince of Wales. A breathtakingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor costars as his illicit love interest and Peter Ustinov plays the reluctant heir to the throne. Also a stand-out in the cast is Robert Morley, who is suitably dazed as the mentally ill King George III. Apparently he was so good in his brief role that Queen Elizabeth II herself approved of his performance as her ancestor when she viewed the film at a Royal Command Film Performance.

As was the MGM way, a scattering of facts about Brummell’s life are filled in with romance, pageantry and a softening of his unhappy fate. Granger plays his role with bracing arrogance and is attractive, if not as charming as the part required. While Taylor knows precisely how to play her prettily passive character, she gives the impression of having untapped passion boiling beneath the façade she presents. The two look great together, but never really connect.

It is Ustinov who brings life to Beau Brummell. He is so charismatic and sympathetic that the film drags noticeably when he isn’t onscreen. With his oddball charm, the actor elevates what could have been an enjoyable, if not enthralling costume drama into something more compelling.

While the production could have greatly benefited from a romantic pairing with better chemistry or a Brummell with the sort of devilish, dashing persona that John Barrymore had in the 1924 silent version of the film, Ustinov lends the proceedings much-needed wit and charm.

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: May Roundup

The more time I spend at home, the more meaningful podcasts have been for me as a way to connect to the outside world. This is the first time in a while that every podcast in my roundup has been new to me. I'm expecting to find many more in the months to come. The episode titles link to the shows:

BBC Radio 3: Arts & Ideas
April 29, 2020
Host Matthew Sweet speaks with guests Pamela Hutchinson, Charlotte Croft, and Mark Glancy about Cary Grant, with a focus on how he crafted his image and the way his pre-Hollywood life affected that process. The episode also delves into interesting aspects of his career, such as how he was rare among male stars in that he was often pursued by women in his films, rather than filling the typical role of seducer.

You Can’t Eat the Sunshine
May 8, 2020
Rare book dealer Howard Prouty, Vintage Los Angeles curator Alison Martino and Jeff Mantor of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop talk about the history and decline of film bookshops in Hollywood in this illuminating episode that is also a call to action: Mantor has started a GoFundMe in order to keep his historic bookstore afloat at a time when he has lost all foot traffic and must rely solely on mail order. As a loyal customer of the store, at first on my yearly visits during the TCM Classic Film Festival, and now via mail, it was interesting to learn more about the history of the store, in addition to how it was included in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

Here Lies Amicus
May 5, 2020
 The best part of this podcast dedicated to the productions of UK-based Amicus Studios is its charming hosts Gabriela Masson and Cev Moore. Here they discuss the horrors of the witchcraft flick City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) and yet the episode leaves you feeling cheerful because they so frequently get the giggles as they discuss the depravity of Christopher Lee and company. I look forward to hearing more from this well-informed and high-spirited duo.

Ask Jillian
Debra Tate is a Warrior Woman!
February 18, 2020

This was an unusual find: it turns out Jillian Barberie has been a friend of Debra Tate, sister of Sharon, for over 20 years. More a chat between friends than an interview, the two discuss many aspects of the life of Sharon Tate, the Tate family’s long fight to keep her murderers in prison, and how Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie worked with Debra to bring her sister back to life in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). It was a fascinating conversation: Tate is smart, tough, and compassionate and as sad as it could be, it was good to hear her side of the story.

This is Not a Story About…
May 7, 2020
Filmmaker Ted Geoghegan’s new podcast explores classic Hollywood stories that take an unusual turn. This episode about Jackie, the MGM lion is as nail-biting and emotionally stirring as an old-time serial. I was riveted. Geoghegan’s friendly, well-informed storytelling reminds me a bit of Phoebe Judge from the Criminal podcast, with the difference that this is a one-man show and thus more intimate. A beautifully-produced show.

Calling Old Hollywood
May 1, 2020
Host Kat Lively has a delightfully dishy conversation with Laurie Jacobson, writer, wife of a former child star, and a long-time Hollywood resident who shares her insights on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and other actors from the classic age of movies. Jacobson is one of those Tinseltown regulars who has been there and seen it all. She’s also the first podcast guest I’ve encountered who has contracted and recovered from the Coronavirus.

On Blu-ray--Tex Avery Screwball Classics: Volume 1

There’s no better balm for tense times than the rowdy, absurd slapstick of Tex Avery. Made for a general audience, these 'toons aren’t always appropriate for the kids, though they aren’t likely to destroy their innocence either.

Newly released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, Tex Avery: Screwball Classics Volume 1 is an eclectic, eccentric collection of his shorts. Though Big Heel-Watha is cringe worthy in its approach to Native Americans, for the most part the collection has timeless appeal. From a racy retelling of Red Riding Hood to a fast-paced, goofy take on murder mysteries, the common thread among them is that everyone and everything is a little off-center. In some respects, the concept is not that absurd.

My favorite short of the collection was Symphony in Slang, which features a hep cat at the gates of heaven trying to explain himself to heavenly hosts who don’t understand his hip language. They envision his story in strictly literal terms, which results in a lot of silly, but amusing visuals.

Also amusing: the sprightly elves of The Peachy Cobbler who create magical shoes for their owner, including a pair of heels that do a striptease.

The set also features a couple of recurring characters. Screwball Squirrel is a more sociopathic less charming version of Bugs Bunny; you actually feel sorry for the gallery of doofuses he destroys with glee. Droopy Dog is more loveable, defeating his enemies by keeping his chill and waiting for the fools to bring themselves down.

This disc was a wild ride: laugh-out-loud funny and a treat for the eyes. I’m looking forward to volume II.

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

Book Review--Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans

Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans
Frederick W. Gooding, Jr.
Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

The story of black victory at the Oscars is complicated: a saga of small steps forward, but often uneasy circumstances surrounding those gains. Winning isn’t just a matter of earning recognition, but also a reflection of what kinds of stories, roles, and stars get rewarded. In a new book, Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us About African Americans, Frederick Gooding, Jr. approaches the subject with clarity and compassion, acknowledging progress, while analyzing the quality of those advancements.

Gooding creates a solid framework upon which to lay his examination of the history of Black performers at the Oscars. He has chosen to focus on the acting category because it receives the most attention and thus tends to have the strongest cultural impact. For each nomination, he considers the nationality, primary profession, frequency of individual nomination among performers, and the subject matter and tone of the films and performances for which they are nominated.

The theory Gooding presents is that there is an essential template for the black Oscar nominee which favors foreign-born actors over African Americans, a small pool of nominees who are nominated multiple times, performers who are already established in other fields such as music and sports, and stories that focus on biography and racial struggles. He concludes that Hollywood denies audiences and performers varied stories and roles or hiring fresh black talent because studios find it too risky. As a result, the same names appear year after year on nomination lists, and from films and for roles with limited range, denying cinematic expression of the full black experience.

Gooding approaches his subject with kindness, refusing to judge ambitious performers for accepting roles as mammies and slaves or branching out from other fields into acting, while acknowledging that the prevalence of these characterizations and the failure of studios to hire trained black actors causes harm. He not only understands the complexity of the matter, but is able to pick apart the various elements and present them in a compelling matter. His thinking is academic, but he writes with fluidity, making the subject accessible.

As he applies his theories to each nominee, moving through them chronologically, Gooding’s text is often repetitive, but the resulting tedium is the point. African American actors and filmmakers have exponentially more to offer than they have been given the opportunity to do. With this incisive and detailed study, it is clear where change needs to happen. It is only a matter of heeding the lessons of the past.

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

On Blu-ray: Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton in William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936)

I have revisited director William Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), a film based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, many times over the years and the older I get, the richer it becomes. While any movie can change meaning with repeat viewings, this is a production that particularly reveals new facets with time. Now beautifully restored and available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed this drama of aging, love, and loneliness anew.

Walter Huston stars as Sam Dodsworth, a small-town auto magnate who sells his factory and plans to settle into retirement with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). His significant other is much younger than he is and not so eager to sink into old age. After years of provincial boredom in the proper social circles, she is ready for some excitement.

The pair embarks on a cruise to Europe, where Fran struggles with the politics of shipboard flirtations (David Niven is sleek and charming as her shipboard suitor) and Sam meets a friendly and frank divorcee named Edith (Mary Astor), who has been living on the cheap in Italy. Life on the Continent strains the already weakening bond between the Dodsworths. Fran wants to sow her oats, but she doesn’t fully understand her needs, nor does she live in a society that supports her desires. Sam is eager to explore the local culture and can’t understand his wife’s frantic behavior.

Though Sam initially tries to force Fran to return home to meet her new grandchild and accept the reality of her age, he eventually realizes that she must have her freedom. While she embarks on a shallow adventure among posh, but cash-poor hangers on, he tries to keep busy at home and abroad. A chance meeting with Edith starts to point him on the right track, but his sense of marital duty complicates matters.

When I first saw Dodsworth, I viewed Fran as the villain of the piece. I focused on the vain, snobbish, disloyal aspects of this woman who could so easily discard her husband at the first opportunity. In subsequent viewings I have developed more empathy for this unhappy character. Even as a wealthy white woman, she is limited by societal expectations that are at odds with her desire for a vibrant life. You can sense her feelings of imprisonment in the requirements of convention.

In a way it is understandable that the Dodsworths were once drawn to each other. Each of them possesses a big spirit; they’re both hungry for adventure. It’s just that their concept of what that means has changed over time. Sam loves his wife, but in his refusal to try to truly understand her perspective, he is as toxic for Fran as she is for him. Edith sees this relationship for what it is, and tries to coax both the Dodsworths to see themselves with more clarity.

It was, and still is rare for a film to so thoroughly and effectively explore these adult, existential matters. In an industry so often focused on youthful adventure and romance, there’s something deeply satisfying about looking at what happens after marriage, parenthood, and retirement. It is a process of facing the truth and finding it devastating, beautiful, and full of the complexities that make life fascinating.

The Blu-ray includes a Lux Radio Theater production of Dodsworth from 1937, co-starring Huston and his wife Ninetta “Nan” Sunderland.

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: April Roundup

Since I've been at home for over a month, I've had a lot more time to listen to podcasts. As a result, I have more episodes than usual to share this month. I've already seen some eyerolling on social media over the prospect of there being even more podcasts sprouting due to social distancing, but I say bring them on! If you have started a show recently, please feel free to share in the comments. I applaud anyone who can create in these strange times. Here's what grabbed my interest this month, episode titles link to the show:

TCM: The Plot Thickens
Peter Bogdanovich
April 28, 2020

During the TCM Home Edition of TCM Classic Film Festival, the network relentlessly plugged its new podcast, the first season of which features the best moments of fifteen hours of interviews host Ben Mankiewicz conducted with Peter Bogdanovich. With his close friendships and numerous book projects with great studio era stars and directors, there is probably no living filmmaker better connected to the great talents of classic Hollywood. So far the podcast is a compelling biography of the director, slickly produced and sure to be a hit with fans of TCM.

And the Runner Up Is…
A Letter to Three Wives (feat. Murtada Elfadl)
February 26, 2020

I love the concept of this show: discussing Oscar-nominated films that didn’t win and determining whether or not they deserved the award. This episode was especially interesting to me because I didn’t know there were an additional two wives in the source story and that one of their stories got cut from the film. Great history and analysis.

Behind the Screen: The Hollywood Reporter
The Irishman—Thelma Schoonmaker
Episode 58

January 31, 2020

More of a career overview than a full discussion about The Irishman, this episode lays bare film editor Schoonmaker’s brilliance and charm as she shares stories of getting her start in the industry, her mutually supportive working relationship with Martin Scorsese, and her views on filmmaking.

Classic Movie Musts
The Divorcee (1930) w/ Special Guest Mark Vieira
Episode 114

April 10, 2020

An engaging Mark Vieira (Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934): When Sin Ruled the Movies) shares the story of the production of the scandalous pre-Code The Divorcee (1930), including how MGM managed to adapt the salacious novel to the screen and how Norma Shearer subverted her wholesome image to win the lead.

Pure Cinema Podcast
Something Weird Video
March 15, 2020

I loved this tribute to the cheaply-made, but culturally fascinating films released by the Something Weird video company. Started in Seattle by Mike Vraney and cultivated with his wife Lisa Petrucci, the company has kept exploitation directors like Doris Wishman and Herschell Gordon Lewis in circulation and introduced thousands of unusual flicks to generations of film fans. The movies shared here go deep into the company’s catalog. I found lots of new titles to seek out, as I always do listening to PCP.

Book vs Movie
All About Eve
Season 6, Episode 29

March 28, 2020

I’m a longtime fan of this lively show in which friends Margo P. and Margo D. compare movies with the books that inspired them. I’m delighted that they have branched out into short stories in order to offer a weekly episode schedule during quarantine. Their discussion of the Mary Orr story that inspired Joseph Mankiewicz’s widely adored film is a lot of fun. 

On Blu-ray: Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford in It Started with a Kiss (1959)

While it has its charms, It Started with a Kiss (1959) is best remembered as the film that introduced the bizarre vehicle that would one day be the Batmobile. Stars Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford are charming, but they are often adrift in this unfocused romance. I recently watched this mixed bag of a movie on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Reynolds is Maggie Putnam, a clever showgirl on the hunt for a millionaire husband. While on the prowl at a lavish charity event, she instead meets Air Force Sergeant Joe Fitzpatrick (Ford), who has new orders to report for duty at a base in Spain. They have a whirlwind romance before he leaves, resulting in their marriage, which is bumpy from the start. To further complicate matters, Joe wins a luxurious Lincoln Futura prototype which draws plenty of unwanted attention.

Reynolds and Ford are an odd match. Despite Ford’s use of persistent courtship tactics that have dated poorly, the pair seems to have chemistry at first. Their first date is relaxed and fun, with conversation that has a rambling, casual quality that feels real. They are unable to sustain the feeling of those early scenes though.

The bland story and poorly written script are mostly to blame, but part of the problem is that Reynolds was 27 and looked younger and Ford was 43 and looked older. Of course, that never mattered with Bogie and Bacall, but here it is unsettling. They’re both attractive, but there’s no sizzle between them and in some respects that’s a relief, because they look more like an uncle and his niece than a married couple.

For most of its running time, It Started with a Kiss is a confused mess. There are misunderstandings, arguments, bland flirtations, and an overall feeling that everyone is waiting for some direction. Harry Morgan and Eva Gabor are a pleasant addition to the supporting cast, but they seem to be politely playing along while searching for the point of it all.

There are some perks: gorgeous costumes, beautiful Spanish scenery, and a pair of leads who are immensely appealing if not too hot together. The Lincoln steals the film though. With its bubble glass roof, bright red interior, and sharp tail fins, it looks like a grounded Jetsons space craft. Painted cherry red for the film, it would eventually be made over as the famous Batmobile on the Batman television program starring Adam West. It was a lot of fun to see an early version of this famous car. 

This is a film strictly for car fiends and devoted fans of Ford and Reynolds.

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

TCM Classic Film Festival Home Edition: Memories and Plans

Nothing can match the feeling of community and excitement about classic films you find at the TCM Classic Film Festival. When I first attended in 2014, I decided almost right away that I had to return the next year. The glow you get from this event stays with you throughout the rest of the year.

While I am disappointed that I will not be spending my seventh festival in Hollywood, I'm impressed by the Special Home Edition that TCM has put together. The schedule, which you can find here, is a beautifully-crafted collection of films and interviews which serve as a sort of greatest hits of the past ten years of the festival.

For those who have not attended, it offers a taste of what the event has to offer. For past attendees, it is a bittersweet brew of nostalgia, full of happy events, though many of the guests featured here are no longer with us.

At a media roundtable this morning, TCM General Manager Pola Changnon said that they will be closely monitoring the response to the home edition to gauge whether it may possibly continue alongside the Hollywood event, which is an exciting possibility for those who cannot make it to California for the festival.

I'm planning to have TCM on throughout the four days of the event, but there are a few things that I am going to make a point of watching with extra attention.

On first glance at the schedule, I decided I had to revisit these moments:

Friday, 4/17, Grey Gardens (1975): One of first films I saw at the festival. I had the magical opportunity to see Albert Maysles who was was physically frail, but still had a razor sharp mind and memory.

Saturday, 4/18, Mad Love (1935): Witnessing Bill Hader's Peter Lorre impression made this screening one of the best of 2019. I also adore this absolutely bonkers horror flick.

Saturday, 4/18, Vitaphone Shorts: As Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project has now passed, I am especially glad I got to see him present this entertaining program of shorts at the 2016 festival. His passion for these groundbreaking sound films thrilled the audience.

Sunday, 4/19, Red-Headed Woman (1933): I will watch any pre-code, but watching this film at the Egyptian was one of my favorite festival experiences just to hear the reaction of the crowd to Jean Harlow's audacity as a home-wrecking secretary.

New to me picks:

I'm pleased that several of the selections were things that I didn't have the chance to see at previous festivals. These are films and interviews I am especially excited to see for the first time:

I still haven't seen the version of Metropolis (1927) with the restored footage found in Argentina, so this is a must-see.

I have seen a recording of Luise Rainer: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival (2011), but it's such a remarkable interview: her hearing aid wasn't working, but Robert Osborne and Ms. Rainer made it all work. 

I'm seriously considering watching Neptune’s Daughter (1949) in the bath since this was a poolside screening at TCMFF 2010.

As festival guest Max von Sydow has recently passed, I want to pay tribute by watching The Seventh Seal (1957), which I haven't seen for a long time.

I was disappointed to miss the screening of Sounder (1972) at TCMFF 2018, so that is another must-see.

The one-two punch of Eva Marie Saint:  Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival (2014) and North by Northwest (1959) should be great. I saw Ms. Saint at another festival and she is a witty and charming interview subject.

After hearing raves about Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) for years, I'm looking forward to finally watching this documentary.

I also can't wait to see the pre-code Night Flight (1933), followed by Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival (2013). I saw Ms. Novak before a screening at the 2014 festival and appreciated her refreshing honesty about Hollywood and the life of a film star.

The pre-code Double Harness (1933) is notorious among TCMFF regulars for having two screenings with overflow crowds. Lots of humor in making this programming choice.

I nearly passed out when I realized Norman Lloyd was behind me at a screening of Panique in 2017. I've never been able to make one of his interviews before though, so I am looking forward to Norman Lloyd: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival (2016).

On the last day of the festival I will be most attentive during Peter O’Toole, Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival (2012) and Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016), but as with the rest of the line-up, I will have a hard time tearing myself away from this amazing selection of films and interviews.

Check out the TCMFF Home Edition page for more information about the schedule and links to many opportunities to watch content by the TCM hosts and connect on social media with other fans. It is going to be a great four days!

Book Review--The Short Story of Film: A Pocket Guide to Key Genres, Films, Movements & Techniques

The Short Story of Film: A Pocket Guide to Key Genres, Films, Techniques and Movements
Ian Haydn Smith
Laurence King Publishing, 2020

I’m a fan of Ian Haydn Smith’s concise film guide Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know. With his new book The Short Story of Film: A Pocket Guide to Key Genres, Films, Techniques and Movements Smith is similarly adept at introducing important aspects of cinema with quick brush strokes and great clarity.

The book is arranged as its subtitle reads, with sections devoted to genre, fifty key films, some of the key movements of cinema, and various filmmaking techniques. It was wise of Smith to include a visual guide to how to approach the book, because there is a lot to each page. Each entry consists of four sections, which, depending on the category, can include a list of influencers at the top of the page, a brief explanation of the subject, a sidebar which highlights important advances or moments for the subject or filmmaker, and then a list of cross-referenced subjects to be found in the book across the bottom.

While the busy feel of this kind of organization doesn’t make for a streamlined reading experience, it does enable a reader to easily select which aspects of a subject to explore. It is a lot like an app or a website with all of its menus exposed.

As with his previous book, Smith has clearly made an effort to be inclusive in his brief survey of cinema. His selections cover a diverse range of films and filmmakers which encompass gender, nationality, and race. While he acknowledges the strong influence of Hollywood cinema, his coverage captures a satisfying array of international films, filmmakers, and movements.

While the Technique section was interesting in itself, I found it to be the weak spot of the book. In itself it was a less cohesive category, with a jarring confluence of categories from costumes and special effects, to camera techniques like zoom and slow motion. It also didn’t feel smoothly integrated into the book itself, which for the most part focused on the artistry of film.

Overall this would be an extremely valuable resource for an emerging cinephile. It’s brief, but dense with information. As a lifelong movie lover, I realized how many gaps there were in my own cinematic knowledge when I explored the sections on subjects like Iranian film and the Japanese period drama genre Jidaigeki. There’s great passion and knowledge within these pages and I could see the spark of a lifelong obsession with film being born of it.

Many thanks to Laurence King Publishing for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray--3-D Rarities: A Collection of Ultra-Rare and Stunningly Restored 3-D Films

What struck me about Flicker Alley’s first edition of 3-D Rarities, a compilation of rare, vintage three dimensional films from 3-D Film Archive, was that the films were of such high quality that they were entertaining whether or not they were viewed in 3-D. I found the same to be true of the label’s second compilation, which in addition to offering a delightful and occasionally bizarre collection of beautifully-restored films includes two fascinating galleries of stereoscopic photography.

The shorts in the collection demonstrate a few different approaches to the medium. A Day in the Country (1941) is a rural patchwork of “coming at ya’” moments, with all matter of objects flying at the camera to the extent that it becomes comical. In a film more focused on artistic depth than novelty, The Black Swan (1952) features a series of excerpts from the ballet Swan Lake presented as seen on the stage; no pointed toes thrusting at the camera here.

The galleries of stereoscopic photography are a highlight of the set: one the relentlessly cheerful Mid-Century Memories in Kodachrome Stereo, presented with corny flair by Stereoscopic Anthropologist Hillary Hess and the other a series of images taken by silent film star Harold Lloyd, presented by his granddaughter and devoted historian Suzanne Lloyd Hayes.

Hess’ presentation reveals a tinsel-draped world of mid-century, middle-class placidity, for the most part snapped by photo hobbyists looking to capture everything from the kids by the Christmas tree to an every day trip to the gas station. It’s a fascinating look at a long lost world, where images that were once ordinary become fascinating decades later.

The Lloyd presentation was my favorite part of the collection, because I didn’t realize how varied the former silent star’s photography had been. While I knew that he had happily spent his retirement taking pictures of buxom starlets and increasing his expertise in photography, I didn’t realize he had also traveled extensively and in the process captured stunning images from around the world. Lloyd’s empathy is evident in the scenes he has recorded, which show the beauty of ordinary people and the simple elegance of daily scenes in city streets. Some of the shots are so well composed that they look like paintings.

Included in the set is a gorgeous 3-D Film Archive-produced 4K restoration of Mexico’s first full-length 3-D film, El Corazon y la Espada (AKA The Heart and the Sword or The Sword of Granada, 1953). It was a treat to see frequent Hollywood supporting players Mexican actress Katy Jurado and the American actor Cesar Romero take leading roles in this historical swashbuckler. As part of a Spanish team pursuing gold, fighting Moors, and becoming entangled with a captive padre and a graceful princess, the pair are charismatic, dashing, and lots of fun. The three dimensional effects are smoothly integrated into the story, with sword and spear jabs aplenty in the rousing action scenes.

This second set was as fun as the first. I can’t wait to see what the 3-D Film Archive comes up with for volume three.

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

Writing Elsewhere: With a Friend Like Harry (2000) for Crooked Marquee

This week I wrote about the slow-burn French thriller With a Friend Like Harry (2000) for the film site Crooked Marquee. It's an interesting movie, because while it is in many ways a throwback to Hitchcock-style suspense, it has a lot of timely things to say about the way money can give one a sense of unearned power. You can read my take on this marvelous, unjustly forgotten film here.

On Blu-ray: Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (1979)

In a time where virtually the whole human race is feeling the absence of loved ones, the charming A Little Romance (1979) has become a more bittersweet film. When I recently watched the movie on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I appreciated it as a timeless tribute to many aspects of love and a timely reminder of the connections that we are fighting for now.

In her film debut, Diane Lane is remarkably assured as Lauren, an American teenager living in Paris who meets and falls in love with Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) a movie-mad local boy. Despite the instability of her life due to her mother’s (Sally Kellerman) multiple marriages and affairs, Lauren is intelligent and emotionally mature. When she and Daniel meet the charming, but mischievous elderly widower Julius (Laurence Olivier), they soon pull him into their plans to go to Italy so the two can have a grand romantic moment like the one he once had with his dearly departed wife.

A Little Romance dances between innocence and corruption with such a gentle touch that everything feels suffused with light. In juxtaposing Lauren’s innocent romance with her mother’s emerging affair with a sleazy film director, it reflects on the good and bad of l’amour, but always recognizes the overall intoxication of making a love connection. The sweetness of George Delerue’s score (his sweeping romanticism is unmistakable) helps to sustain the feeling of giddiness.

One of the most compelling relationships in the film is between Lauren and her stepfather Richard (played with elegant restraint by Arthur Hill). Both actors have that rare, remarkable ability as a performer to communicate deeply with an audience as they listen and react. They are more in-sync than the other characters, because they understand each other’s emotional needs and realize that fighting for love is worth risk and struggle. Hill helps his stepdaughter to keep her big love alive, while also ensuring that his own relationship doesn’t fall victim to her mother’s restlessness.

Olivier is dramatically less subtle than these two. His is a performance full of ham, with flustered outbursts, and outsized physicality. It could be a disaster, but Sir Olivier seems to be in on the joke. When the moment requires it, he can plunge you through the heart with the most poignant expressions of grief, joy, and compassion.

In a role that could have similarly made a buffoon of Kellerman, she communicates her emotional needs with a desperation that shows through her selfishness. In most films she would be a bad person. Here she is simply a lost romantic in need of direction.

I was moved to tears by A Little Romance. The sight of tourists enjoying the bridges and canals of Venice was immeasurably moving and heartbreaking given the situation there today. But I would have gotten misty watching this in any time, because the idea that romance is worth the fight of your life is profoundly beautiful.

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

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