Dec 29, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: December Round-up


 

Little Miss Movies Podcast 
December 1, 2020 

I was both charmed and fascinated by this family podcast hosted by Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice, her husband Joshua Fialkov and their precocious fifth-grader daughter Gable. In each episode the trio discusses the classic films Gable’s parents have, in their words, forced her to watch. Fortunately she is clearly a willing victim. Rice and Fialkov are adept at asking the right questions and Gable is an insightful young film fan. Her ultimate take on Citizen Kane was on-the-mark and a revelation to me after years of watching the film.
The Treatment 
December 8, 2020 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this discussion about Stanley Kubrick between host Elvis Mitchell and author David Mikics is the pair’s efforts to determine the filmmaker’s style. What is the common thread in his diverse works? It’s a thoughtful and engrossing conversation.
Maltin On Movies 
October, 9 2020 

The beloved and respected film scholar and Wesleyan University cinema professor Jeanine Basinger has known Leonard Maltin since he was a teen. Because of that long history, whenever she is a guest on his podcast they have a charming habit of sharing each other’s stories. There’s all sorts of fascinating tidbits in this episode, including Basinger’s experiences hosting Joan Crawford at Wesleyan and the time she had to hire three stenographers to translate Kay Francis’ juicy diaries.
The Old Soul Movie Podcast 
November 27, 2020 

I enjoyed this affectionate tribute to Eartha Kitt by hosts Jack and Emma Oremus. They do a great job covering her turbulent childhood, varied career, and plain-spoken activism. I appreciated the way they nailed so many of the unique traits that made her special.
Switchblade Sisters 

This discussion of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) with director Zeuna Durra is deeply satisfying because she weaves the personal with the professional beautifully in her awestruck assessment of this mysterious film. I also felt painfully her frustration at losing her kids' interest in classic film after showing them Disney flicks.

Dec 24, 2020

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night



I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.


Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 22, 2020

On Blu-ray: The Glorious Quartet of Loy, Powell, Harlow, and Tracy in Libeled Lady (1936)


The first time I watched Libeled Lady (1936), in the midst of my stunned teenage discovery of Jean Harlow, was on a well-worn VHS I’d borrowed from the library. What a gigantic shift it was to see it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive; it looks and sounds so sharp and clean it feels like a different film.

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrasting personas of the cast in this lightly entertaining comedy. There’s the crisp and amusing William Powell and Myrna Loy, already comfortable playing off each other in a cool, but pleasant manner as they would in several films. Juxtaposed with this is the earthier appeal of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, who are less suited to each other, but similar in the way they always project an aura of honesty.

This is a film that rests on its star power. For the most part, with the notable exception of Walter Connolly, playing Loy’s exasperated father, these four carry Libeled Lady. Loy plays a carefree socialite who finds herself the victim of false reporting. Tracy is the guilty reporter who in his desperation to avoid litigation enlists Powell to trap Loy in a real scandal to negate the false one. He convinces his eternally frustrated fiancé Harlow to marry Powell, temporarily of course, as a part of his scheme.

Though her screen time is brief compared to her fellow stars, Harlow steals Libeled Lady. She’s effortlessly mesmerizing, playing big and loud one moment only to dial it down with subtle, sweet moments of silent acting, like a charming scene where she realizes Powell is more honorable than she thought. It’s heartbreaking to realize this was her last great role, with only Personal Property (1937) and a partially completed appearance in Saratoga (1937) to come before her death at age twenty-six. Here she appears ready to take her comedy chops to another level, a skilled comedienne who endured the brutal public scrutiny of learning onscreen only to become the best in the game.

As much as I love the ease of Powell and Loy together, I enjoyed the sizzling chemistry between real life lovers Powell and Harlow even more. Their emotional connection translated to the screen, much like Bogart and Bacall. There is a warmth and shared humor between them that comes through in their few scenes together, even when they’re supposed to be at odds with each other. It’s fascinating to imagine what kinds of movies more Powell and Harlow pairings could have produced.

Libeled Lady is solid entertainment with all the elements in place: a witty script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, smooth direction by Jack Conway, and a quartet of stars working at their peak. It was a pleasure to be able to see and hear it anew with such clarity.

Special features on the disc include the comedy short Keystone Hotel, an MGM short New Shoes, the cartoon Little Cheeser, audio for the Leo is on the Air radio promo, 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.

Dec 16, 2020

On Olive Films Signature Blu-ray: Ford, Wayne, and O'Hara United for the First Time in Rio Grande (1950)

Rio Grande (1950) marks an interesting point in the careers of both director John Ford and star John Wayne. It was a time when the men were maturing into their later careers, where they would both try variations on their well-established images. It’s the last film of Ford’s loosely arranged cavalry trilogy (including Fort Apache [1948] and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949]). It wasn’t a work of great consequence for Ford, and he felt the cavalry milieu was played out, but he couldn’t help lending his magic to even a tale as well-worn as this one. In a new features-packed Olive Signature Blu-ray release of the film, I had the opportunity to go a little deeper into the production of the film and appreciate its complexities. 

This was the first film of the legendary five film screen partnership between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (they’d both already signed for The Quiet Man [1952], but hadn’t started production), and from the beginning their chemistry was profound. They play an estranged husband and wife: Wayne is Captain Kirby, who leads his men at an isolated cavalry outpost, O’Hara comes to him after a long separation, because her son (Claude Jarman Jr.) has enlisted after failing to make the grade in school and she worries for his safety. 

The family drama is the heart of the film, while the action comes from the threatened attack of hostile Apaches who force the soldiers to attempt to escort the women and children at the base to a safer location. Even understanding the different mindset at the time the film was made, I still struggle with the way the Native people here are portrayed as faceless and vicious. That said, my perception of these characters was forever changed when I interviewed former child actress Karolyn Grimes several years ago (she’s the one that says “Uncle Timmy” and rings the church bell). She remembered being fascinated by how indigenous actors loved playing cards and drinking soda pop between takes. 

As a sort of seasoning to these sequences, there are also several cowboy-tinged musical interludes by the Sons of Pioneers group, beautiful location shooting in the Moab, Utah setting in the Professor Valley, and an astonishing scene of stunt riding featuring Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. The latter is a remarkable sequence in which the men leap up to stand on top of two horses, a foot on each, and ride them chariot style, even clearing a six foot jump (in an interview included in the special features, Johnson is nonchalant about the dangerous stunt, saying he had a great foothold). As a counterbalance to this athletic show stopping, Victor McLaglen is reliably cheerful and crusty as a sergeant who could probably be cut entirely out of the film, but what would a Ford western be without him? 

You can see how the film might have felt simultaneously lacking in story and a little busy at the time of its release, but it’s all done so well and with such remarkable people that it nevertheless stands as a classic. 

One of the most impressive things about Olive Signature releases is the careful curation of disc special features. The company always finds a perfect balance of addressing the elements of a film that need further exploration without overwhelming with too many features or including items that are of little value. There’s a typically satisfying array of offerings included in the Rio Grande release. 

Claude Jarman Jr. is one of the underrated storytellers of old Hollywood, and here in a brief interview he demonstrates his remarkable recall as he shares stories from his career overall and his role as Wayne’s son. Wayne’s real son and business associate Patrick Wayne offers a more personal perspective about his father’s experience on the set, in addition to his own memories about working on location. I was most appreciative to hear industry veteran and New Mexico-born Native Raoul Trujillo’s thoughts on the portrayal of Native Americans in the film; this feature helped me to unpack my still-conflicted feelings about the way they were depicted in this 70-year-old film. Other special features include a retrospective of the music in the film by Marc Wanamaker, a video essay by Tag Gallagher, an essay in the disc’s booklet by Paul Andrew Hutton, a theatrical trailer, and a vintage featurette about the film hosted by a very young Leonard Maltin which is valuable because it features interviews with several of the stars before they passed. 


Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a disc for review.

Dec 14, 2020

A Classic Movie Blog on Instagram

 



I've noticed that there have been a lot more of you dropping by in the past year (welcome!), so I wanted to make sure you all know that A Classic Movie Blog is also on Instagram.

Come join me, Bob, and Rita here!

Dec 9, 2020

Holiday Delight on Blu-ray: It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

For over ten years on this site I have been banging the drum every holiday season about It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). I never felt like they got enough love, though awareness of these charming films appears to have grown at a steady pace. Now all three are available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive; a delightful gift to receive at the end of a turbulent year. 

Of the three, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) has probably enjoyed the highest profile over the years, being one of the best films of director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Sam Raphaelson, and blessed with a high profile cast including Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan. It also helps that the film was loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail (1998), which led to a lasting trickle of interest in the original. 

Set in a Budapest gift shop during the holiday season, The Shop Around the Corner follows the lives of its employees, from the marriage troubles of the shop owner (Morgan) to the anxiety of a new delivery boy. At the center of it all are Sullavan and Stewart, employees of the store who are constantly at odds with each other, but also secret pen pals who are falling in love. 

If it weren’t for the Lubitsch/Raphaelson combo, it might seem silly how long it takes these characters to figure out a few clear truths. Instead, these commonplace, but deeply important and occasionally magical elements of human relationships are revealed with the light touch and subtle winking manner that gives a luster to anything these two create. 

Note: viewers who are sensitive to content involving attempted suicide might want to steer clear. There is a brief scene in which more is implied than seen, but which does have a strong emotional impact. 

Special features on the disc include A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound, a Screen Guild Players Radio Broadcast of the film's story from 1940 and a Lux Radio Theater Broadcast from 1941, and a theatrical trailer.
It Happened on 5th Avenue is another solid ensemble piece, though without the star power draw of The Shop Around the Corner. This does not mean that Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm are any less riveting in this story of making emotional connections across class, generations, and time. Moore is Aloysius T. McKeever, a man without his own home who spends his winters in the Park Avenue mansion of the obscenely wealthy Michael O’Connor (Ruggles) while the ruthless real estate magnate is at his country property. This year is different though, he picks up a few other people in need of shelter, including recently evicted veteran Jim (an energetic and charismatic DeFore), a family with a newborn, and eventually the residents of the mansion (though incognito) O’Connor, his ex-wife Mary (Harding), and his desperately lonely daughter Trudy (Storm). 

These eleven drifters, be it physically, emotionally, or both, live under the moral leadership of McKeever, who seems better suited to oversee operations at the cavernous home than its oblivious owner. The community and mutual aid they develop together has special meaning in this year of isolation, with many experiencing loss of crucial resources, and feeling renewed outrage about the way the wealthiest hoard assets needed by the masses. These serious issues are approached firmly, but also with warmth, gentle humor, and a feeling of hope. That’s why while only one scene centers on Christmas, it is an essential holiday film. 

The disc also includes a 1947 Lux Theater broadcast of the film’s story.
My favorite of this trio is Holiday Affair, a quietly moving and humorous drama about a widow (Janet Leigh) struggling to move past the loss of her soldier husband. 

Leigh is Connie, a secret shopper who unknowingly costs salesman Steve (Robert Mitchum) his job. When she realizes her faux pas, she buys him lunch and they quickly form a bond. 

Connie has been dating the attentive Carl (Wendell Corey) for a couple of years, but the arrival of Steve throws her into confusion about what she truly desires. Connie’s son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) has no doubts about what he wants: an electric train for Christmas and Steve for his new father. 

Carl knows how to tend to Connie: he remembers what drink she likes and gifts her with clothing that suits her perfectly, but over the years he hasn’t come to understand her on as profoundly as Steve does with just a few meetings. He sees that Timmy has replaced his father as the head of the house and that Carl will never fit the bill because a ghost will always live with them. In a way Timmy knows that too, with the blunt, but honest perception of a child.  
Mitchum is beautifully receptive in this early role. As an actor he’s a great listener, and he demonstrates that ability in his scenes with Gebert, where his careful attention to the boy is both charming and deeply moving. He’s also a nice match with Leigh; they’re low key about their attraction, but you can sense the sizzle beneath the surface. 

While Steve is the catalyst for Connie to move on to a healthier life, she has a loving support system which has helped her to maintain a home and career. Graff Barnett and Esther Dale are unusually understanding and supportive as Connie’s parents. Gebert is lovely as her son: full of the desires of a young boy, but kind and considerate of his mother; he has the most charming lines in the film and he gets into the emotion of them with appealing gusto. It’s also nice that while Carl isn’t the man for Connie, he’s not made out to be a villain. He knows when to bend to her needs and he does so gracefully. 

This is a particularly nice holiday film because while it deals with loss and need, it does so gently and with a light touch. It’s Christmas spirit without the tear-jerking. 

Special features on the disc include a 1950 Lux Radio Theater production of the film’s story and a theatrical trailer.


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

Dec 4, 2020

On Blu-ray: Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge (1940)


 

Vivien Leigh made so few films that every opportunity to see her is a great pleasure. She achieved one of her best screen performances in Waterloo Bridge (1940). I recently watched the World War I-set romantic tragedy on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

Adapted from a Robert E. Sherwood play based on his own experiences, this version of the story followed a more gritty take from the pre-code era directed by James Whale and starring Mae Clarke, and preceded the less faithful color adaptation Gaby from 1956 starring Leslie Caron. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s slick, but emotionally wrenching 1940 adaptation benefits from its sympathetic leads and solid supporting performances by reliable character actors including Maria Ouspenskaya and C. Aubrey Smith. It is perfectly engineered studio filmmaking, but Leigh’s performance gives it guts. 

Leigh plays Myra Lester, a young ballet dancer in wartime London who struggles to adhere to her dance mistress’ (Ouspenskaya) strict rules. She meets army colonel Roy Cronin on Waterloo Bridge and quickly bonds with him as the pair shelter together during an air raid. Their courtship advances speedily to engagement, but then Roy is abruptly called to battle, so they cannot be married. Myra loses her job and can’t find more work in war ravaged London. 

When Myra receives a mistaken notice that Roy has died in battle, she wearily turns to prostitution to make ends meet. She eventually finds Roy has actually been a POW, and is both elated and devastated to be reunited with him. For a time she continues their relationship, but she fears for his reputation if her secret is discovered. 

One of the best things about Waterloo Bridge is the way the leads subvert the norms of this kind of story. Vivien Leigh’s Myra could have easily slipped into weepy melodramatic mannerisms, but she remains grounded, mostly due to her steady intensity, but also because instead of becoming sentimental, she always stays firmly in the reality of her predicament. Taylor’s character is written to be more compassionate than men typically are towards a woman in Myra’s situation, and he enhances that kindness with a sort of wonder in the magnificence of this woman he loves. For this reason, their connection feels real in a film where the plot tosses them around with brutal efficiency. 

It is ultimately a story of how easily those who are marginalized can be destroyed. Myra and Roy can’t be married because of a law about when marriages can be performed, and it seals her fate. Myra nearly starves because she has no family or husband to protect her and there are few opportunities for young women to find steady employment in wartime London. When Myra meets Roy’s mother, the wealthy older woman has no understanding of her vulnerability, she takes her existential distress as a personal insult. Likewise, Roy fails to see the struggles a woman like Myra must endure simply to survive; he has only known luxury and the privilege of being a man. As a result, an innocent woman is devoured by a society that fails to support her. 

While it all sounds unbearably bleak, the couple's relationship is charming, Leigh is mesmerizing, and it is a beautifully filmed production. It breaks your heart, but with great elegance. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and a radio production of the drama starring Norma Shearer in the role of Myra.

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

Dec 2, 2020

Book Review-- Steve McQueen: In His Own Words


I live for myself and answer to nobody. -Steve McQueen 

Steve McQueen: In His Own Words
Marshall Terrill
Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2020

Steve McQueen is known for having been a man of few words on the screen. That was partly because he had difficulty reading and memorizing his lines, but he also found little value in excessive chatter. In Steve McQueen: In His Own Words, an extensive new photographic tribute by Marshall Terrill, that tendency extends somewhat to his off-screen life. While the actor had strong opinions about his life and the world around him, for the most part he liked to keep to himself. 

The book is dominated by photos, each accompanied by a quote from McQueen, with the occasional aside from Terrill when clarification or a fact check is necessary. 

An interesting, sometimes unsettling story unfolds in the photos. McQueen was handsome and photogenic his entire life, but he often shows the trauma of an unsettled childhood. Many pictures show his first wife Neile beaming at him while he stars moodily into space, connected physically, but emotionally adrift. As he ages, his grizzled beard and sun-tanned skin seem to indicate a comfortable withdrawal from stardom and Hollywood life, but there’s always a little distance in those eyes.

McQueen’s childhood was almost feral at times. His father abandoned him and his young mother before he was a year old, and his mother was essentially unable to care for him, leaving him first with an elderly relative and then a reform school in Chino, California called Boys Republic. He spent his late teens riding the rails, a life without friends or family, full of violence, starvation, and uncertainty. It wasn’t until he settled in Greenwich Village and took up acting that McQueen begin to work towards stability. 

McQueen didn’t enjoy acting, but it gave him the money to buy a home, get married, and perhaps most importantly to him, fund his obsession with speed in the form of cars and motorcycles. These sentiments are repeated several times throughout the book, including his belief that women should be in service to men (he fumed for days when driver Cristabel Carlisle beat him in a car race), that he preferred a simple life, and that he preferred the company of regular men. 

While I learned a lot about McQueen here, by about fourth time there was a quote about his “old lady, kids, home, and food on the table” I began to lose interest. As fascinating as his rags to riches story can be, there’s ultimately not much of a story to tell here. He pulled himself up from grinding poverty, had an unusual, hugely successful career, even starting his own film company, had varied and sometimes scandalous relations with his three wives, and made sure he helped boys in the same position he had been in, but as a man he was as simple as he claimed. 

The photos are gorgeous, telling a compelling visual story, though again there are many that look about the same, precisely because McQueen led a simple life, often shirtless in white pants or zipped into a racing suit. Still, this is for the most part a fascinating visual journey and one that digs deep into what made the actor the man that he was. I am also aware that there are plenty of McQueen lovers who could never get enough of him shirtless in white pants. The book is a must-have splurge for devoted fans of the actor, and perhaps less essential for more casual devotees.

Many thanks to Dalton Watson Fine Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Dec 1, 2020

Cary Grant Comes Home for the Weekend Festival: Making My First Video Essay and Chatting on a Panel with Creators


One of the best things I've done since the pandemic has changed life so dramatically was to learn how to make a video essay. 

I did it for the Cary Grant Comes Home for the Weekend Festival, a wonderful event that usually takes place in the actor's hometown of Bristol, UK, but was online for the first time this year. 

My video was part of a partnership between the festival and Will DeGravio's Video Essay Podcast. This year's festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Grant's first voyage to the United States. Participants were tasked with creating a video essay exploring the concept of journeys. 

I immediately knew I had to discuss Grant's emotional journey in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), something I wanted to do so badly that I humbled myself and asked my kid how to make a video. This is the result (to view the whole screen, click on the title link below the video):

 

Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS: A Journey to Love from Kendahl Cruver on Vimeo.

While I have a lot to learn, I had a lot of fun making this. If you have any interest in making your own video essays, go for it! Once you get deep into the process, it can be addictively fun. 

I was so impressed with the creativity of my fellow participants, a collection of bright, fascinating people from around the world. We all had the opportunity to talk about our work with DeGravio and festival director Dr. Charlotte Crofts on a panel that took place during the festival. Here is a compilation with all of our videos and that conversation edited together (to view the whole screen, click on the title link below the video):

The Journeys of Cary Grant: An Audiovisual Celebration — Full Screening and Q&A from Will DiGravio on Vimeo.

You can also watch the videos individually here. I am looking forward to making more video essays, which I will share here. If you have made a video essay you'd like to share, please put a link in the comments!

Nov 25, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: November Roundup

 


I Saw What You Did
Esteemed Dirtbags
November 9, 2020

I’ve missed TCM Programmer Millie De Chirico’s voice in podcasting ever since her hugely entertaining show Sordid Details with co-host April Rich ended. Now she is back, with co-host and cultural writer Danielle Henderson to talk about movies. Every week the hosts will each pick a movie to share and discuss. The first episode features The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Heavenly Creatures (1994) and I’m already a huge fan. Both De Chirico and Henderson are unpretentious, knowledgeable, and great at the sort of easygoing patter that makes a podcast a must-listen. 

 


Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Carmen Miranda read by Storm Large
October 20, 2020

 I continue to be impressed by the short, but substantial profiles in this podcast that is appropriate for children, but of interest for all ages. While I have long been a fan of Carmen Miranda, this episode made me realize how little I knew about her unique and turbulent life story.
 


Cinema Junkie
Black Films That Matter
July 3, 2020
 
I don’t know how I missed this fascinating episode of Beth Accomando’s film podcast from this summer, when protestors marching against police violence were the focus of media attention. Writer David F. Walker shares a well-curated list of protest films, including several lesser-known gems like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). I appreciated how Accomando gave Walker the space to go deep about the feelings the protests aroused in him. His comments gave the film recommendations and the more cinematic aspects of their conversations more meaning.
 





Nov 11, 2020

On Blu-ray: Glamorous Mayhem in The Opposite Sex (1956)


The first time I saw The Opposite Sex (1956), a musical remake of The Women (1939) I didn’t appreciate it. How could I when I compared it at every beat with one of the best films ever made? I had a much different experience when I watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release, because I saw it for its own bold, vibrant, nasty charms.

In this version of a story based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play, June Allyson plays a wronged housewife (married to the robotic Leslie Nielsen) and former singing star who loses her producer husband to a scheming showgirl (Joan Collins, sexy, but far from the magnificence of her Dynasty days). She learns about the insult via the machinations of her frenemy (Dolores Gray) and pulls herself out of misery with the help of her best friend (Ann Sheridan) and a wild social crowd including Ann Miller, Agnes Moorehead, and Joan Blondell.

The best moments are, unsurprisingly when the women are alone together, plotting, gossiping, drinking, and supporting each other through the mid-century challenges of being female. This is a stunning cast, full of big personalities that meld together miraculously. Though I hate the term “cat fight” and the way people snigger at women in physical fights, I have to admit that fisticuffs were central in my two favorite scenes: one where Allyson gets so steamed she slaps an earring off Collins and another where a kitchen at a Reno divorce ranch is obliterated in a massive, chaotic, glamorous and very entertaining battle among several cast members.

While the songs aren’t terribly memorable, and my own personal dislike of Allyson affected my perspective, the production numbers look great and hop along with bouncy energy. In a musical highlight, Dick Shawn makes a typically goofy and unhinged appearance singing the title tune in a sketch with Jim Backus as the perfect straight man. Gray lends her silky charm to a rendition of the same tune during the opening credits.

In essence, The Opposite Sex is an explosion of female charisma, glamorous gowns, gorgeous color, and dripping acid. It’s a good time.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and a menu with direct links to the musical numbers.

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

Nov 4, 2020

On Blu-ray: John Wayne and Robert Ryan Butt Heads in Flying Leathernecks (1951)


Flying Leathernecks (1951) is an unusual entry in World War II cinema. While it leans into the familiar camaraderie and hijinks of many war films from the era, it offers a few visceral glimpses at the violent realities of war. This is most likely due to the influence of director Nicholas Ray, who was stuck with an assignment that ran opposite to his beliefs. I recently viewed it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

John Wayne and Robert Ryan star as Major Dan Kirby and Captain Carl “Grif” Griffin respectively. Kirby has been enlisted to lead the Wildcats Marine squadron as they head into what would become the historic battle of Guadalcanal. While the unit members had assumed that Grif would be promoted to commander, they accept their new leader, as does Griffin, who is disappointed to not get the promotion, but takes the rejection in stride and apparently with little surprise.

While they respect each other on a certain level, the men butt heads. Griffin believes in the human touch, and focuses on building strong relationships with his pilots, while Kirby is determined to face his tough job with a hardline approach. That perspective is at odds with the tenderness of his home life, where he is gentle and adoring with his wife (Janis Carter) and physically affectionate with his young son (Gordon Gebert), if in a macho way and after gifting him with a Japanese sword. It is possible that there is a divide between what Kirby assumes he has to do and what he feels.

Grif seems to understand Kirby’s conflict on some level. He doesn’t like his methods, but he doesn’t entirely write him off. Ray wisely gives them plenty of space to talk it out in long scenes that revel in the charisma of both stars. Perhaps they were both too old for their roles, but in these moments I enjoyed their presence enough that I wasn’t concerned about such details.

The supporting cast is sturdy, if not exciting. A standout is Jay Flippen as crinkly-eyed line chief and undercover supply thief Clancy. He has a face for Westerns, which is mostly what he did throughout his career, and here that quality lends some needed character and warmth to the proceedings.

As was typical of mid-century war films, the battle scenes are framed for the most part as action set pieces, but you get a glimpse of the horror these men are enduring. When they are shot, they don’t just flail around; you see the blood and the way their eyes throb with pain.

Ray was anti-war and you can sense him sliding some of his viewpoint into a studio assignment. However, for the most part the film feels like a high-flying Howard Hughes production, with its extended air battles and patriotic certainty.

Fans of World War II films will enjoy it. Ray fans won’t see the director they love here. For the most part, it is the push and pull between Wayne and Ryan that gives this production spice.

The only 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.
 

Oct 29, 2020

On Blu-ray: Doris Day Breaks Out in Romance on the High Seas (1948)


 In Romance on the High Seas (1948) Doris Day made one of the most impressive film debuts in Hollywood history. In that performance, she emerged as a fully-formed star, ready to top the box office in the decade to come. Now this light-hearted musical, with its charming supporting cast and ridiculously catchy tunes is available in all its perfect pastel glory on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.


Janis Paige and Don DeFore set the scene as Elvira and Michael Kent a wealthy New York couple suffering from mutual delusions of marital infidelity. Elvira is also frustrated because Michael constantly cancels anniversary trips for business. 

When Michael ditches Elvira yet again to work on a merger, she decides to announce she’s going on their spoiled Cuba trip alone, while sending underfunded nightclub singer Georgia Garrett (Day) as a decoy in her place so she can spy on Michael and his new secretary at home. The also suspicious Michael hires detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to follow “Elvira” on her trip. To complicate matters, Georgia and Peter meet on the ship to Cuba and quickly become smitten with each other.

While director Michael Curtiz is perhaps best known for drama and action hits like Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), he did helm several musicals, including working again with Carson and Day on the also charming My Dream is Yours (1949) the following year. However, Busby Berkeley was hired to direct the musical numbers, and while in this film he doesn’t oversee the kind of massive, leggy productions that brought him fame, his unusual framing of movement and faces is evident in performances like that of the delightful calypso tune The Tourist Trade, led by the engaging Broadway and Cotton Club star Avon Long.

Jack Carson also has his moment with Run, Run, Run, his amusingly Caucasian take on Calypso, but for the most part the music belongs to Day. She mostly sings in casual settings: a bar, a restaurant, a windy ship deck. The tactic surely saved money, but it’s also clear that Day could provide ample spectacle by herself. 

The soundtrack is full of winners: in addition to Long and Carson’s numbers, Day’s renditions of Put 'em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon (and Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea), It's You or No One, and the instant classic It’s Magic are rhythmic perfection. One of the most fascinating aspects of the songs is that the latter two are reprised to reflect Day’s character development.

Day transforms into the unique star audiences would come to love over the course of the film. In her early scenes she is as scrappy as an early Barbara Stanwyck character and similarly a bit of a con artist, but only because her survival demands it. The daisies and sunshine aspect of her persona is always there; she is an instant star and entirely lovable as this character, but from that she evolves into someone more intriguing right before your eyes.

It happens during a mid-film reprisal of It’s You or No One. In her previous rendition of the tune she’s having fun with a fresh-faced combo, showing cheerfulness at odds with the mournful lyrics. When she returns to the tune she has lived the lyrics. With upswept hair on a windy cruise ship deck, she croons with that throb in her voice and ability to embody the emotion in a lyric that would distinguish her as a vocalist. In this moment she escapes being a type and becomes unique, the kind of person who could be a major star.

S.Z. Sakall and Oscar Levant round out the cast with their reliably assuring shtick. There’s also a heightened level of fussiness as both Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn make appearances.

While it may not have the glitz and spectacle of the other musical extravaganzas of the time, Romance on the High Seas is just as satisfying as those films and is in some ways more charming in its simplicity.

The Warner Archive disc includes the vintage musical short Let’s Sing a Song from the Movies and the cartoon Hare Splitter. It’s also got a handy menu that lets you skip directly to the songs in the film.


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

Oct 27, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Round-up

 I didn't have as much time as usual to listen to podcasts this month, but the shows I did catch were extra delightful. All of these episodes are packed full of love for the movies, from great memories, to interesting film recommendations. Episode titles link to the shows:



Warner Archive Podcast
October 23, 2014

With the recent passing of the marvelous Rhonda Fleming, I wanted to re-up this fantastic interview the actress did in 2014 with George Feldenstein of Warner Archive. She packs a lot of memories into this twenty minute talk. Fleming is the rare star who was found by Hollywood, rather than reaching out for stardom herself. While she didn't like the superficial nature of the Technicolor Queen label she carried, she nevertheless had a varied, interesting career and came out of it a lot happier than many stars. This is a must-listen.


Ticklish Business

In this high-energy conversation with host Kristen Lopez, Carroll Baker (Giant, Baby Doll) reflects on her years as a Hollywood star with delightful affection and enthusiasm. In her retirement she’s been keeping busy writing everything from her memoirs to murder mysteries. It was fun to listen to her reminisce and great to see that she’s clearly thriving in her later years.
 

Pure Cinema Podcast
Horror & Thriller TV Movies
October 2, 2020
 
Half the fun of the Pure Cinema Podcast is reveling in the joy and sense of discovery hosts Elric Kane and Brian Sauer find in exploring movies. In this episode they are especially giddy as the pair dives into an area less familiar to both: classic TV movies. I love these films because they are often a great place to catch classic film stars in their later years. Despite having watched many movies of the week, there were several titles here that were as new to me as they were the hosts. As always, this is a show to listen to with paper and pen handy.
 

Cinema 60
Deadpan International Bond Satires in the 60s
September 22, 2020

In this episode Hosts Jenna Ipcar and Bart D’Alauro take an international approach to exploring the spy flicks inspired by James Bond in the 1960s. They cast a wide net, covering films from countries as diverse as Denmark, Japan, the UK, and France. It’s an interesting mix of the familiar and the rare.


Oct 21, 2020

On Blu-ray: In a Smashing Performance Spanky McFarland Steals Kentucky Kernels (1934) from Wheeler and Whoolsey


All the films I previously watched starring the Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey comedy duo were from earlier in the pre-code era and as I remember heavily reliant on scantily-clad chorus girls. The 1934 production Kentucky Kernels trades in shapely legs for the cute factor, a role perfectly filled by George “Spanky” McFarland who was at the time in the midst of his successful run as a member of Our Gang. On a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed watching this little stinker wreak havoc for Wheeler, Woolsey, and anyone else in his path.

Kentucky Kernels falls near the end of the lengthy run Wheeler and Woolsey had as a comedy screen team. While this duo's humor has only slightly reached across time to me, they had a knack for physical comedy, and this production demonstrates how polished they had become in that regard.

The story is set in the South. This time the boys are unemployed vaudevillians who find themselves custodians of Spanky, who seems to have inherited an estate in Kentucky. As the pair attempts to claim the property, they find themselves in the middle of a family feud.

Mary Carlisle is sweet as the love interest, Margaret Dumont is allowed a bit more dignity than in her Marx Bros. films, and Noah Beery does his best Foghorn Leghorn bluster as the feuding Colonel Wakefield, but it is McFarland as a diligent little chaos agent who steals the film from Wheeler and Woolsey. He plays a boy with a penchant for breaking glass. He does it constantly: windows, light bulbs, bottles; whatever comes across his path.

This kid plays the kind of troublemaker that you would typically like to imagine at the bottom of a well, but Spanky is so darn charming and more nonchalant than devious about his mischief. He’s actually the most dangerous kind of troublemaker, with no conscience and no control, but it’s liberating to see him indulge in his appetite for destruction without a care in the world.   

Kentucky Kernels moves along at an efficient clip, buoyed most by McFarland, but also boosted by a musical interlude featuring the charming earworm One Little Kiss, and a magnificently goofy and inventive final slapstick sequence.

For more sensitive viewers, a heads up that Willie Best (billed as Sleep ‘n Eat) is featured as one of those dispiritingly lazy characters Black actors were so often required to play in the era. The disc includes three cartoons from 1934, the Popeye shorts The Dance Contest and Sock-a-Bye Baby, and Buddy's Circus which also heavily features racial stereotypes common for the time (Warners does include a title card with information about the inclusion of this 'toon).

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

Oct 7, 2020

On Blu-ray: Hepburn and Tracy Team up in Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952)

 


The nine films Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together may vary in quality, but it is always fascinating to watch these two together. I was reminded of that as I recently watched two of their collaborations on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive.  Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952) are in different leagues: one is a pleasant enough romance, the other is a classic, but the magic of Kate and Spence infuses both with the kind of intimate mood only these two could inspire.

 

Without Love is an adaptation of a play by Philip Barry. Hepburn had first performed the role on stage opposite Elliott Nugent. It was a lackluster pairing and the production did not do well. Perhaps Hepburn felt she had something to prove by giving it another go? With Tracy by her side, she undoubtedly felt she could do better.

 

Hepburn plays Jamie, an heiress in search of a caretaker for her massive home. Tracy is a government scientist who takes the job because he is in desperate need of space to conduct his experiments and housing is scarce in World War II D.C. They eventually enter into a marriage of convenience, which inevitably leads to love.

 

While it has its amusing quirks, I didn’t find the story of Without Love all that compelling. Basically, Tracy and Hepburn make something of the essentially decent material because they can’t help but be mesmerizing together. The pair rehearsed their roles extensively and they were so in tune with each other that you always feel you are intruding when they are deep in conversation.

 

Keenan Wynn does his familiar unreliable scamp shtick and he does it well, because he has some of the film’s funniest lines. As a calmly wise girl Friday, pre-TV Lucille Ball gives a remarkably controlled performance. She doesn’t waste a word or gesture; it’s beautifully disciplined and it is a pleasure to watch her. In the thankless discarded lover roles, Patricia Morison and Carl Esmond are both oddly alluring, the former for the force of her personality, the latter for a more laidback warmth.

 

Special features on the disc include the vintage crime short Crime Does Not Pay: Purity Squad, the cartoon Swing Shift Cinderella and a theatrical trailer.

 


Pat and Mike offers a complex cocktail of sprightly female athleticism and toxic romance. The role of multi-talented sportswoman Pat was a perfect fit for the athletic Hepburn, especially as written by her good friends, the husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (they also wrote the screenplay for Adams Rib).

 

Hepburn is Pat Pemberton, a phenomenal sportswoman, as long as her fiancé Collier (William Ching) is out of sight. Every time she locks eyes with him, her mojo fizzles. Right away you can see this fellow is no good for her. He picks apart her wardrobe, cringes at her behavior, and seems to think she exists to be an extension of him. No wonder she freezes up.

 

When sports promoter Mike (Spencer Tracy) shows up to woo Pat into a business relationship, it’s such a relief, because he looks at her like she’s worth something. Yes the something is money, at least in the beginning, but his respect for her talent quickly turns to love. He looks deeply into her eyes without a single thought of changing her and he shows his growing regard with little signs of affection, like an arm draped casually across her shoulders or his careful preservation of a handkerchief used to wipe her lipstick off his forehead.

 

That budding relationship is the core attraction of the film, but there are so many other delights. Jim Backus is a comforting presence as Pat’s supportive and perceptive friend, Chuck Connors makes a striking film debut in a bit part as a police officer, and Charles Bronson, in his Charles Buchinsky days, already shows perfect comic timing as a hood in his second film role. As a disgruntled boxer under contract to Mike, Aldo Ray is pleasingly unique with his gravelly voice and big galoot persona. The whole enterprise is bolstered by that witty, Oscar-nominated script and George Cukor’s sensitive direction.

 

The sports sequences are also a delight. In a lengthy, elegant scene on the greens, the camera drifts between long shots and close-ups as it observes the action at a golf tournament. The crowd reactions and the tension of the competition is beautifully woven into the drama of the film.

 

As Hepburn mingles on the green with several real lady golfers, or sets fire the court on fire with her powerful tennis game, she seems right at home. It’s also a lot of fun to watch the pros at work; what an excellent way to preserve the images of sports legends like Alice Marble, Gussie Moran, Babe Zaharias, and Betty Hicks.

 

The disc special features include a pair of trailers for the film.


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

Oct 1, 2020

Streaming Diary: Spooky Flicks for the Halloween Season

                                                      


Happy Spooky Season! Since the list of spooky streaming picks that I compiled in 2019 is so comprehensive, I have decided to simply add to that selection this year with a few more titles that I have enjoyed recently. I’ve also linked to several more films below, so this is the post to bookmark for lots of creepy flicks!

 The City of the Dead (1960)

A college student (Venetia Stevenson) is convinced by her professor to travel to the tiny town of Whitewood, Massachusetts town to study witchcraft. Since that teacher is played by Christopher Lee, you know right away that she is doomed. This flick from the lesser-known Vulcan Productions (the team behind it would go on to form the more renowned Amicus Productions) combines modern settings and ancient horrors in a fascinating way. [available on Tubi, Vudu free, Kanopy]

Return to Glennascaul (1953)

Hilton Edwards was taking a hiatus from directing Orson Welles in Othello (1952) when he made this eerie, atmospheric short with his star. It’s a dreamingly drifting ghost story, as nostalgic as it is creepy, and gorgeous to look at. [available on The Criterion Channel]

The Haunted Strangler/Grip of the Strangler (1958)

In a story written especially for him, Boris Karloff stars as a social reformer who tries to prove the innocence of a man hung for a string of strangulation killings. The film can get a bit silly; Karloff contorts his face in a hilariously bizarre way for a few scenes, but it is fun to see the actor late in his career. [available on The Criterion Channel, Kanopy]

2019 picks

2018 picks from Kanopy

Other suggestions on disc (links go to my reviews):

Bad RonaldThe Mystery of the Wax MuseumTwo on a GuillotineThe Fearless Vampire Killers, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, From Beyond the GraveA Bucket of BloodDracula A.D. 1972Village of the Damned


Sep 29, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up


As the pandemic took hold, I thought that I would listen to podcasts less often because I wouldn't be relying on them so much for entertainment en-route to the various responsibilities in my life. I've found the opposite to be true: I actually listen more now, because I love how they connect me to the rest of the world. The episodes that reached me this month were not only interesting and informative, but they lifted my spirits. I have never felt such gratitude for all these varied programs have to offer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. All titles link to the specific episode:


Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!

Malcolm McDowell: Part 1

September 14, 2020

When listening to this episode, it is immediately clear why Malcolm McDowell required two parts for his guest appearance. Blazing with energy at 77-years-old, the English actor is lively, profane, and hilarious as he rips through stories about his life as a performer and his love of movies. He seems to have remembered everything he’s ever done, everyone he’s ever known, every film he’s ever seen, and all of it in the finest detail. This star doesn’t require lines to be an impeccable entertainer.

 


Micheaux Mission

Come Back Charleston Blue (1972)

August 25, 2020

The upbeat vibe and satisfying chemistry of Micheaux Mission hosts Len Webb and Vincent Williams has become a reliable mood lifter for me. I’ve enjoyed working my way through the back episodes of this podcast  with the core goal of discussing “every Black feature film ever released.” One of the most amusing aspects of this podcast for me is how much these two talk about classic television. I think they’d be great doing a show focused on their love for that! They start discussing the film at about the 40 minute mark, but their early discussions/fan email readings are always a lot of fun. Come Back Charleston Blue is the sequel to the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem and here the hosts’ verdict is that it isn’t as strong as the first film, but their discussion about the follow-up is thought provoking.

 


BBC Radio: The Film Programme

Luc Roeg on Walkabout

July 23, 2020

Host Antonia Quirk has a deeply evocative conversation with Luc Roeg, son of director Nicolas Roeg, about his experiences as a child actor in his father’s film, Walkabout (1971). Roeg clearly remembers his child’s perspective of being on set, from his embarrassment in performing a nude scene to his annoyance that he had to work on his lines while his siblings played. It seems to have been a positive experience for him overall as his tone is for the most part affectionate and nostalgic. This is a quick listen; their talk is in the first ten minutes of the episode.

 


Filmspotting

Barbara Kopple/ Ida Lupino + Maya Deren (Overlooked Auteurs #1)

August 20, 2020

The highlight of this episode is an interview with documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA [1976], American Dream [1990]) in which she provides a fascinating perspective on her films and the relationships she developed while making them. A discussion of Ida Lupino and Maya Deren later in the episode is the first in a series in which hosts Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen plan to learn more about the work of female directors. I was unsettled that in their chronological journey they entirely skipped the varied work of the silent era, not to mention the trailblazing work of Dorothy Arzner, but their discussion was interesting. It’s a start.

 


The American Cinematheque Show

Haunted House of Gothic Horror

September 3, 2020

In its extremely entertaining second episode, the American Cinematheque offers up new interviews with Barbara Crampton and Joe Dante and classic clips featuring insights from stars and filmmakers of classic gothic horror films including Gloria Stuart, Vincent Price, André De Toth, Roger Corman, Robert Wise, Nelson Gidding, Peter Medak, and Stuart Gordon. It’s a roster overwhelming in its greatness. The juxtaposition of archival footage and guests who can put it all into context is deeply compelling. There’s never a dull moment in this show. Crampton’s comments about working with director Stuart Gordon are especially enlightening and even touching.

Sep 25, 2020

Story Time: Richard Burton Remembers His First Glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor in Meeting Mrs. Jenkings

Meeting Mrs. Jenkins, by Richard Burton from Kendahl Cruver on Vimeo.

I wanted to share a treasure I bought in the early days of the pandemic from Larry Edmunds Bookshop. 

Meeting Mrs. Jenkins, by Richard Burton, is a story in three parts: in the first the actor meets his wife-to-be poolside at a Sunday morning party in Bel Air, in the second he sees her in a restaurant, happily married to producer Mike Todd, in the third he and Taylor are in Paris, happily married themselves, and on their way to dinner when he tangles with a paparazzo. 

Before its release as a book in 1964, the account was published in Vogue under the title Burton Writes of Taylor. It’s a sweet story, full of Burton’s typically grandiose, but observant views. 

Though I got a deal on my copy, this book can go for as much as $250 online, so I thought it would be fun to give everyone access to this charming tale with a little story time. 

The gorgeous photos are from the book and are by photographer and filmmaker William Klein (Who Are You Polly Magoo? [1966]). 

Larry Edmunds Bookshop has many other treasures and is open for business! You can call (323-463-3273) or email (larryedmunds1@gmail.com) your orders and requests. You can browse titles at their Instagram page @the_larebrary. The shop also has an active GoFundMe, as being closed to foot traffic has been a brutal blow to the business. So please make an order or a donation and help keep this legendary bookstore in business!

Sep 23, 2020

On Blu-ray: Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940)


When I recently watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of the 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it had been many years since I last saw the film. Several minutes into reacquainting myself with it, I realized I had my hands clasped to my chest. I was reminded that it's such a suspenseful film, though you never hear anybody refer to it that way.

Enough time passes between my viewings of this version, that I constantly forget how much of its entertainment value is in the contrast between the fluffy costumes and high-toned manners and the barely concealed daggers and erotic tensions hidden in every word the characters speak. All these posh, wealthy people are either at battle with each other, madly courting, or as is often the case, both.

Austen’s novel about judgment, image, and hidden truths in high society, centering on the five lively daughters of the Bennett family who push against convention as they strive for happy, prosperous marriages has understandably been a popular choice for film adaptations over the years, but I’ve never found a version that captured those contrasts as well as this one. 

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are very different performers, but as Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett the stage actor and the MGM star are well-matched because they seem to understand the dueling contradictions of their characters and the world they live in so well.

They are joined by a miraculous cast. The talent is almost too much to process. From the older generation there is Edna May Oliver, Mary Boland, and Edmund Gwenn. The high-energy younger cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel, Marsha Hunt, and the actress whose wasted career potential I mourn for thanks to HUAC, the butter-voiced Karen Morley. I have special respect for Frieda Inescort as the snobbish, but sharp-witted Miss Bingley, who manages to fling out the wickedest of barbs motionless but for the tiniest movement of her lips.

It’s the busiest, most vibrant tableau of social drama and the romances that either blossom in spite of it all or because the barricades make it more exciting. Lavish MGM production values add to the pleasure. The gowns and hats are in themselves a worthy spectacle. Of course they are not at all period appropriate, but then the plot also draws selectively from the novel. It's Hollywood.

With a cast that size, director Robert Z. Leonard must have felt as much like a traffic cop as a filmmaker, but he pulled all those varied characters together so that it looked effortless. It's a true classic.

Special features on the disc, which have been brought over from other releases of the film, include a trailer for the film, the World War II era short Eyes of the Navy and a the cartoon The Fishing Bear.

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