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. 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.

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!

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.
 


Nitrateville Radio
Scott Eyman on Cary Grant, Fright Favorites Author David J. Skal
October 18, 2020
 
After enjoying biographer Scott Eyman’s latest book, a definitive take on Cary Grant, I was eager to hear more of his thoughts about the actor. This was the interview I enjoyed the most, because there’s a bit of vinegar to it as Eyman freely shares his criticisms of various stars and films of classic Hollywood. I also enjoyed Skal’s views on classic horror in the second half of the episode.
 

Hollywood Party Podcast
Irene Mayer Selznick
July 3, 2020
 
After reading Scott Eyman’s Grant bio, I was curious to learn more about Irene Mayer Selznick, a child of Hollywood who had always intrigued me, and even more so after learning about her close, enduring friendship with the actor. Lauren Semar’s always-fascinating biography podcast fit the bill. This is a great overview of the life of a fascinating woman.
 


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.

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.
 

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.

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.


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.

Book Review--Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

 


Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Scott Eyman 
Simon & Schuster, 2020

Cary Grant was a complicated man. That much has been common knowledge among his fans for years. He would pinch a penny until it squealed, but was generous with his time and possessions. He’d be as respectful to a studio secretary as a studio boss, but when it came to romance, he wanted a woman who would cater to his needs and even live her own life in accordance with his preferences. He could give you an ulcer or save your life.

All these aspects of the actor have never really been woven into a compelling portrait though. I’ve read a few Grant biographies over the years and I’ve never felt that any of them mined the depths of the man effectively. They always seemed to view him as a bit alien, unknowable. 

Scott Eyman's  new book about the actor, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is the first telling of Grant’s life in which I’ve felt he was given the grace of his humanity. It is clear that the man who started life as Archie Leach was a conflicted, but essentially self-possessed person who could offer profound generosity, but felt the insecurity of early poverty.

Eyman circles back to several topics throughout the book: Grant’s uneasy relationship with his mother, his also difficult marriages, and the ever-hanging speculation about his sexuality. While his issues with the women in his life played a key role in his insecurity about himself, his sexuality seems to have been of less consequence to him than the rest of the world. 

Eyman returns to the topic several times, to the point of it becoming tiresome, but I understood that detailed exploration to be of great interest to many potential readers. In essence, it seems that Grant did have some bisexual tendencies, including with his one-time roommate Randolph Scott, but that he viewed those escapades casually, as if he was horsing around in the locker room.

I appreciated that Eyman’s analysis of Grant’s career acknowledged the actor’s hesitancy to take risks and expand his craft. He certainly had the ability to excel in roles more adventurous than the comedies, romances, and thrillers he favored. 

The work he did, especially in comedy, required great skill, and he made it look a lot easier than it was, but he could have gone deeper if he’d had the nerve to divert from his image and take a risk. It’s fascinating to imagine what he could have done with something like either of the male lead parts in The Third Man had he taken the offer.

While Grant turned down several roles that could have challenged him to grow, he was nevertheless brilliant when it came to managing his career. He mostly free-lanced, striking multi-picture deals when it seemed advantageous. When Grant retired from acting, he easily slid into business, finding that being an active member of several boards required some of the same skills he’d used in his career.

In the end, Grant found himself adored, wealthy, married to a woman who catered to his needs, and well-loved by the daughter he had after leaving acting behind. He never entirely figured himself out, but who does? He worked his way to a sort of peace and he was generous in helping the younger people in his life to learn from his mistakes.

I finally felt like I understood the essence of Grant after reading Eyman’s book. The richness of the narrative, which was smoothly written and filled with enlightening first-person accounts, and the thorough research made me feel that every possible crevice of his life had been examined. We are as close to knowing this man as we will get and I admire him more than I ever have.


Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.



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.

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


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.

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!

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.

Bizarre Streaming Picks for the Pandemic Mind

As I’ve looked to occupy myself at home over the past several months, I’ve found comfort in the many moods of cinema. Cheerful flicks for a crummy mood, horror movies to get my blood pumping, and long films because I don’t have a lot of places to go and that has freed up a lot of time.

Going deeper into this strange time though, I’ve found myself seeking out weird movies: both old favorites and new experiences. I guess my feeling is that bizarre times call for corresponding cinema. 

I’ve been enjoying the ride and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’m sharing the movies I watched on the Criterion Channel, though I have also noted other places you can stream these films when possible. Most of them can also be rented from the usual suspects:

 


The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

The only film written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) is just as bizarre and inventive as you would expect. A boy who objects to his life of routine and parental control imagines a frightening, but vibrant world ruled by his strict piano teacher.

 


8 ½ (1963) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHBO MaxKanopy

Federico Fellini’s quasi-autobiographical tale of a film director surrounded by chaos offers the perfect example of how one must give in to the carnival and abandon the fantasy of an orderly life.


             

Alice (1988) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHoopla, Kanopy

Surrealist filmmaker, puppeteer, and animator Jan Švankmajer’s nightmare-inducing take on the story of Alice in Wonderland is a perfectly fascinating plunge down the rabbit hole, but maybe not for most kids.





Black Lizard/ Kurotokage (1962) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

While I prefer the more devious vibe of the 1968 Black Lizard, an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s classic crime novel, this light, absurd musical take on the story is a lot of fun. The famous detective Akechi pursues the notorious criminal Black Lizard while showing himself to be a criminal of the heart.

 

Cab Calloway’s Hi Dee Ho (1934) [short]

The Criterion ChannelPrime

With his floppy forelock and alternately jittery and fluid dance movies, Cab Calloway always had an otherworldly air, like surrealism personified. He takes the crackling jazz of his sizzling band to another plane with his uniquely delirious and unpredictable style. The bland stiffs in the Cotton Club audience seem oblivious to the magic they are witnessing.

 

A Chairy Tale (1957) [short]

The Criterion ChannelKanopy, NFB

There’s a lot of wonder to be found in the work of Canadian filmmaker Norman MacLaren; take a look at his short films on the National Film Board of Canada website for plenty of pleasurable distraction. I’m especially fond of this stop motion fantasy though. Accompanied by the fanciful strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, a man struggles to sit on a chair which always slides away from him whenever he approaches. It’s a silly, but touching story which is ultimately about mutual respect.

On Blu-ray: A Garland and Rooney Double-Header, Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy


When I finished up my double feature viewing of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films Strike up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943) (both newly available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive), I felt a familiar mixture of exhilaration and confusion. There’s so much to love about these classic musicals: the top-shelf tunes, entertaining supporting cast, uplifting production numbers designed by Busby Berkeley, and the transcendent marvel that is Judy Garland. 

The everlasting point of confusion for me is Mickey Rooney. I wonder how many classic film fans appreciate Mickey Rooney more than they enjoy him? It’s clear that he had talent; I’m not entirely immune to his zest, but don’t think I’ll ever get him completely. I’m sure part of it is that some of his humor and vigor haven’t aged well, but it’s also hard for me to pay him much mind when Garland is there busting your heart open with those smooth tones and soulful brown eyes. He seems like a cheerful wind-up toy in comparison.

That confusion has always affected my feelings about Garland and Rooney films. They have an undeniable chemistry, but I’m always baffled that the miraculous Ms. Judy would be mooning over this self-absorbed, oblivious guy. I know it is very much of the times that she sits there cheering him on while sitting on her own monster talent and intellect, but knowing isn’t everything. 

I suppose it says a lot for these films that despite all that, they always leave me happy. Strike up the Band is rightfully most famous for a dream sequence that features an orchestra of stop-motion figures with fruits and nuts for both their heads and instruments. The moment is the product of aspiring band director Jimmy’s (Rooney) imagination: he is using the contents of an overflowing fruit bowl to explain his musical plans to his friend Mary (Garland). The scene is full of bizarre images, like a walnut-headed figure playing a nutcracker like a harp and a line of pear-noggined musicians playing pear halves like violins. An early career George Pal designed the number, which could stand on its own as an entertaining short film. 

This unusual scene happens early in a musical that is otherwise full of that “let’s put on a show” vigor. Thanks to Berkeley, the dance numbers really pop. His standard technique of using dancers to make mesmerizing patterns gets a burst of energy from his youthful dancers. They’re all adorable, though it is really something seeing all those white kids attempting Cuban flair in the Do the La Conga! number. 

The then hugely popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (most famous now for his key role in King of Jazz [1930]) appears with his orchestra and even acts opposite Rooney in a few scenes. 


Though it also has its share of big production number flair, Girl Crazy (1943) is for the most part a lower-key affair. This is my favorite Rooney and Garland film because it is bursting with Gershwin standards. Having But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm, and Embraceable You in one movie would be enough to give it classic status, but the topper is the magnificently meandering Bidin’ My Time, with Garland and the The King's Men and chorus, and is practically an anti-production number with its easy pace and lanky cowboy dancers. 

I also enjoyed the presence of character actor Rags Ragland, who shows his burlesque past in the way he adapts smoothly and easily to the performance style of his costars. He had an especially pleasing chemistry with Garland.

Tommy Dorsey and his band are lively presence throughout the film. Director Norman Taurog perfectly frames the fresh, joyful energy of the trombonist and his musicians. The group plays for June Allyson in the opening nightclub number as she croons Treat Me Rough. They are especially magnetic though in the Fascinating Rhythm number, where they all look like they are having the time of their lives.

Both discs feature introductions by Mickey Rooney and theatrical trailers. Strike up the Band also has a commentary by John Frick, the comedy short Hollywood Daredevils, the cartoon The Early Bird Dood It, a Stereo remix of I Got Rhythm, and audio of a Bronco Busters outtake. The Girl Crazy disc includes the Pete Smith comedy short Wedding Bills, the cartoon Romeo in Rhythm, a Stereo remix of Do the La Conga, and audio features including a Leo is on the Air Radio Promo, Millions for Defense and a 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. 

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

Must-Watch on TCM: Mark Cousins' Epic Documentary, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

In the opening scenes of Mark Cousin's 2018 14-episode documentary series Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, narrator Tilda Swinton says that “most of the so-called movie classics have been directed by men.” For its television debut on TCM, each episode includes this in the introduction, acknowledging an exclusion of multiple dimensions, from an active desire to suppress female voices, to ignorance, to an incurious carelessness in distributing opportunity. This basic injustice should always be remembered, but the beautiful thing about Women Make Film is that while it acknowledges the struggles of woman filmmakers to make their work and be recognized, it focuses almost entirely on their craft.

Presented like a leisurely road trip through cinema, in which the past is viewed from a different perspective, Women Make Film is a deep appreciation and wide exploration of female filmmakers who have been making art as magnificent as the most celebrated male directors. The work of over one hundred women is sampled in brief clips, their form and effect discussed in the narration. The variety is stunning, demonstrating that “female” filmmaking has innumerable characteristics.

Instead of narrating himself as he did with the equally epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), writer and director Cousins has wisely chosen to have women take the reins this time. The pleasingly varied voiceover talents of Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger do much to enhance the equally diverse films and perspectives discussed.

The series is divided into chapters, about two or three are covered per episode, with subjects ranging from editing and tonal transitions, to themes like love, death, and politics. These explorations probe deep and some can be quite intense and adult. I am guessing that there will be outrage on the TCM message boards about parts of it, but that boldness gives the film an uncompromised potency.

Ultimately, Women Make Film succeeds because it gives the viewer reason to celebrate and encouragement to explore. The injustice and the horrid waste of cinema being so long the domain of white men can never be overcome, but there is still much to enjoy. From the most mysterious experimental works to heart pounding genre flicks and every conceivable form in between, Cousin’s film gives us many reasons to celebrate women who make films and a solid basis from which to reinvent the cinematic canon.

The film, which originally debuted at TIFF 2019, will run on TCM one episode at a time each Tuesday, from September 1 through December. Each of these nights will also feature a wide range of films directed by women. It’s a wide-ranging selection, covering a rich array of nations, races, and styles. TCM hosts Alicia Malone and Jacqueline Stewart will team up to present the films and given how effectively they have collaborated in the past, I am sure they will make this an exciting and illuminating series.

 Many thanks to TCM for providing access to the series for review.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up

 


I’m especially impressed with the quality of the podcasts I listened to this month. This wide variety of shows all had something extra interesting or new to offer. Episode titles link to the show: 

The Marx Brothers Council Podcast 
July 23, 2020 

The story of producing a documentary can be just as dramatic as the material being covered, and the production of the definitive Marx Brothers doc The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell follows in that tradition. This conversation with producer Robert B. Weide and writer/editor Joe Adamson is packed with great stories about the challenges of making a documentary before the digital age and the many other aspects of filmmaking that remain difficult, if very possible to overcome. Interesting for anyone, but extra helpful for aspiring documentarians. 


Hollywood Party 
July 17, 2020 

This is an interesting concept for a show: profile a Hollywood star and then ask at the end, would you want to party with them? Lauren Semar is a natural, engaging host and would probably be quite the party guest herself. She knows her history and she shares it in an entertaining way. As much as I’ve read about Rock Hudson over the years, I learned a few things from this episode and I appreciated the compassion Semar showed in telling his story. And yes, Hudson would have been a great party guest. 


DWT (Drinking While Talking) 
July 30, 2020 

My dear friend Jill Blake and her partner in the RetroSet website Wade Sheeler have a great discussion about the newly revived concept of drive-in movies. They talk about the challenges of going to watch a show at a drive-in (watch out electric car drivers) and then share a fantastic list of ideas for having your own outdoor screenings at home. 


Book vs. Movie 
July 27, 2020 

I’m a longtime fan of this podcast because the co-hosts, Margo D. and Margo P., billed as “The Margos” are sharp-witted, funny, and have fantastic chemistry. I especially liked their comparison of C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen with director John Huston’s adaptation because the book has a more modern perspective than I expected and it was fun to hear them talk about why. 


Such an Old Soul 
August 12, 2020 

In her new podcast, host Dominique Lessing talks about love of vintage culture from the perspective of a twenty-something. I enjoyed her affectionate tribute to the short-lived Honey West television show which starred Ann Francis. Despite its limited run, it was a stylish, fascinating program and Lessing explores what made it interesting and groundbreaking.
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