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 Å vankmajer’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.

On Blu-ray: The Magnificent Esther Williams and Victor Mature in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Before I saw Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) for the first time, I read the passage in Esther William’s juicy memoir about the hot after hours affair she had with co-star Victor Mature. For that reason, this film has always been extra spicy for me. I’ll never know how much of my enjoyment watching it has to do with me looking for sparks between those two.

It is a magnificent production though. This was a decade in which MGM reliably crafted boldly-colored, extravagant spectacles meticulously crafted to absorb the masses. While Esther Williams was hired for her abilities as a swimmer and performer in water extravaganzas, she was more than a pretty duck in a bathing cap. She didn’t have designs on being a great actress, but the camera loved her and she had charisma.

My favorite Williams flicks are the fluffiest: like Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and Dangerous When Wet (1953), where she flirts a bit on land, there’s a few musical numbers, and then she does her thing in the water. Million Dollar Mermaid is more ambitious than that; it’s a biopic of Williams’ sister in the water, Australian swimmer and vaudeville star Annette Kellerman. Of course it’s the glossy, MGM take on biography, with a light rendering of the contours of reality shined up with big romance and pretty production numbers.

While it doesn’t go down quite as easily as William’s lighter films, Million Dollar Mermaid works. It contains some of her most magnificently outrageous production numbers, designed with surreal flair by Busby Berkeley. The swimming star had great chemistry with Mature, and Walter Pidgeon is pleasantly avuncular as her father, so the rest of the film flows along nicely, but the unique magic of Williams in the water is timelessly fascinating and is what makes the film a must-see.

As far as Williams was concerned, this was her best work. There are photos of Kellerman visiting the set, posed happily with the star, so I am guessing she approved.

There's a a brief bio of Annette Kellerman and few clips from her films here in a post I wrote several years ago.

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

Book Review--Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen

Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen
Christian Blauvelt
Running Press/TCM, 2019

In a recent frenzy of pandemic purging and organizing, I was delighted to find a copy of TCM’s Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen, written by IndieWire managing editor Christian Blauvelt. I’d gotten it in my media bag for the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival, but as inviting as it looked, I was too busy to read it then. But now? It’s the perfect time to indulge in some armchair travel.

I suppose New York had to be the first choice for the series. It’s by far the most cinematically represented city in the United States, and maybe the world. A lot of the locations included here are to be expected too: The Empire State Building, Times Square, and The Statue of Liberty among them. When it comes to the films though, there’s a lot of material to draw from and Blauvelt chooses wisely, achieving a good balance of the popular and lesser known.

Most of the book focuses on the most popular NYC filming location: the many neighborhoods of Manhattan. The other boroughs are grouped into a section that makes up the final quarter of the book. Blauvelt looks at the city in a variety of ways: via its hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, and institutions. A map at the end of each section provided basic orientation for film fans interested in touring the locations discussed.

It would be outrageous to omit the cheerful, catchy opening number of On The Town (1949) in which Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin dance through the great landmarks of the city. It was an ideal opening for the book, but I loved how some of the entries got more obscure.

The Hotel Chelsea section alone touches on a silent film about the Titanic which starred an actress who survived the disaster, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen scandal, and 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke. An especially fruitful passage that begins with Andy Warhol and his superstars touches on avant garde filmmaker Marie Menken, speculation as to the inspiration for Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966), and even contains a reference to the brief affair Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had there. A bustling scenario, just like the city.

I liked the concept for this book, and I thought it was well-executed. It's mostly for fans of the mainstream and definitely contains lots of expected material, but it satisfies more esoteric tastes as well.

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

On Blu-ray: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Sweet Bird of Youth (1961), and Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

I recently had a personal viewing party full of dysfunction thanks to a trio of new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive. Inside Daisy Clover, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Sweet Bird of Youth are a messy, but fascinating trio cataloging the many ways being a human can go off the rails.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

With his typical respect for the work of great novelists, director John Huston filmed friend Carson McCullers’s second novel with the plot essentially intact. This story of illicit passions and mental strife on a southern army base has drawn a few laughs over the years for its over-the-top dramatics, but I’ve always thought the high temperature of many of the performances suited the characters.

As the foursome at the center of the film, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, Julie Harris, and Elizabeth Taylor are a well-balanced quartet of contrasting vigor and frailty. Taylor in particular seems to understand the psychology of the dim-witted, but emotionally blazing woman she plays. In a calm, nearly wordless performance, Robert Forster cools the proceedings, thought his chill is clearly only on the surface. Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift had both circled Brando’s role, but I can’t imagine anyone but him capturing the mixture of bluster and shame necessary to play an officer who craves control, but can’t even get a handle on his own desires.

One of the best features on the disc is the option of watching the film in standard color as released or with a wash of gold as Huston had originally planned. I like both versions, but the golden hue is effective in making these characters seem trapped in their uncomfortable, insular world, like fish circling a dirty bowl. The disc also includes a short film of silent behind-the-scenes footage, which documents what appears to be a pleasant, professional set in total contrast to the turmoil of the drama being portrayed.

Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

Natalie Wood was under contract to Warner Bros when she won the lead in Columbia Picture’s Inside Daisy Clover. The studio forced her to star in The Great Race (1965) in exchange for doing the film, which reinforced why playing a juvenile film actress who suffers under the control of her employers would have appealed to the actress. She also recognized Daisy’s isolation.

It’s a bleak film. Daisy Clover (Wood) rises from poverty, but doesn’t escape her suffering. Every time she thinks she has found love and affection, be it from her mother (Ruth Gordon), a lover (Robert Redford), or her employer (Christopher Plummer), it is cruelly taken away from her. Daisy needs to learn to love herself, but she’ll need to move through a lot of emotional clutter to understand that.

Wood is at her best in her scenes with Gordon and Redford. She insisted on casting her friend Gordon as her mother and their closeness comes through on screen. In the first of two movie pairings with Redford, she found one of her best costars. They relax with each other in the most delightful way, as if they are at play.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and the classic cartoon War and Pieces.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)

Based on the Tennessee Williams play, this production is packed with the passions and power struggles typical of the playwright’s best work. It centers on Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), a never-was in Hollywood who has returned to his small Mississippi hometown with the drug-addicted, alcoholic star Alexandra del Lago (Geraldine Page), to whom he has been serving as procurer and nursemaid, among other things. He pines for his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Shirley Knight) though her corrupt political bigwig father Boss Finley (Ed Begley) is dead set against their reunion. Rip Torn is quietly frightening as his son and reptilian fixer.

Newman, Page, and Torn performed in the Broadway production of the play, and their familiarity with the material and each other gives the film an added emotional vibrancy. They could all be caricatures, but have lived with these characters long enough to view them with humanity. Begley earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance; he’s a superficially charming, self-absorbed monster, full of rage that he cannot control the world around him and determined to bully his way to success. Knight is in an essentially thankless role, but she has a way of looking both into and through others that draws attention and gives her authority.

The play was sanitized a bit for the screen, resulting in a less-explosive ending, but it retains plenty of heat, mostly thanks to its particularly intelligent cast.

Special features on the disc include a featurette about the film, a screen test of Page and Torn, and a theatrical trailer.

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

Must-Watch On Blu-ray/ DVD: The Vibrant, Independent Vision of Spring Night, Summer Night (1967)

In 1968, J.L. Anderson was invited to show his debut feature, an Appalachian-set drama about an illicit love affair, Spring Night Summer Night (1967) at the New York Film Festival. His film was later bumped for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968). Cassavetes would go on to a prolific career as an independent director, while, with all other promotional efforts for the film falling flat, Anderson would fade from public view.

It’s frustrating to realize that a lack of spotlight may have been all that deprived us of a great cinematic oeuvre, but thanks to the support of Nicolas Wending Refn’s byNWR, at least Anderson’s fascinating and moving rural masterpiece has been restored and is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.

The film is set in Ohio coal-mining country, in the actual homes, bars, and fields of its residents. Anderson was a film professor at Ohio University and he took his locations seriously, embracing the lonely clotheslines, porches piled with belongings, and peaceful dirt roads of the southeastern region of his state.

Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall star as Carl and Jessie, half siblings, or least so they think. There is deep affection and sexual tension between the two. One night, after Carl objects to Jessie’s flirtations in the local bar, he rapes her in a field. Ashamed of his actions, Carl leaves abruptly for Columbus to look for work. Two seasons later, in the summer referred to in the title, Carl returns home to find Jessie is pregnant with his child and the pair tries to determine their own true parentage in the hopes they haven’t committed incest.

In the midst of their conflict, we learn about the people of the town, among them Carl’s, and perhaps Jessie’s father (John Crawford) and Jessie’s mother (Marjorie Johnson). These parental figures are emblematic of the worn spirit of the town. Both are nostalgic for the prosperity and hope of the war years, where it was possible to travel the world and visiting soldiers offered fun and a little luxury. In a pair of devastating monologues each of them express how they, like many in the town, live in sad longing for what might have been.

Despite this depression, the people of Spring Night, Summer Night are not pathetic characters. Poverty may bring them misery, but it isn’t unrelenting torture. They’re humans in search of joy and sometimes they find it. Anderson weaves these scenes of happy escape throughout his film: shared laughs and lively dancing at a local bar, the camaraderie between friends sharing a fast food meal in a park, or the easy pleasure of a young couple riding a motorcycle together through the countryside, sharing licks from an ice cream cone.

Anderson captures these moments with a simple naturalism similar to that of Italian neorealism, a stylistic vision he chose intentionally. Though the production was low-budget, it was high quality, with a sharp crew hired from the photography department of the university and a cast full of actors he’d handpicked from various stage productions. He joined forces with grad student Franklin Miller (who he met via his father, with whom he made a series of short films about physics) and friend Douglas Rapp (his involvement was brief, as he died in a motorcycle accident before filming began).

With a solid cast and crew, Anderson was able to concentrate on craft and that shows on the screen. He was a hands-on director, always close to the camera and certain of the details he wanted to capture. As a result there isn’t a moment that feels wasted or careless in Spring Night Summer Night. There is a sensuous beauty amid its worn characters and settings that can only come from careful observation.

The Flicker Alley set provides a solid primer on the background of the film and Anderson’s career. A trio of the short films he made with Franklin Miller: the fast-paced and humorous Football as It Is Played Today (1961), How Swived (1962), and Cheers (1963) are dramatically different from the feature. A 2016 Q&A at the Cleveland Cinematheque and the short documentary Spring Night Summer Night: 50 Years Later both offer valuable insights from the cast and crew. A slideshow gallery and a remarkably extensive reel of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage give an excellent perspective on the production of the film, showing camaraderie and a vigorous work ethic throughout the group. The short film I’m Goin’ to Straitsville is a tour of the film’s locations as they look today and In the Middle of the Nights: From Arthouse to Grindhouse and Back Again explores the ill-advised decision (not approved by Anderson) to edit the film into the exploitation flick Miss Jessica is Pregnant in a bid to make more money on the film.

It’s an impressive set in tribute to a remarkable film which is profoundly deserving of classic status.

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: July Round-up

One of the things that I've loved about the latest crop of new podcasts is that creators have been coming up with original and compelling ideas for shows. I hope this inspires aspiring podcasters out there to think big and go for it with unusual ideas. Here's what I loved this month:

The American Cinematheque Show
Youth Division with guest Larry Karaszewski
May 29, 2020

With the goal of sharing the many interviews American Cinemateque has in its archives, the group has created this show in which a guest helps to bring context to various clips of stars, filmmakers, and other industry professionals talking about their work. In this episode, Larry Karazewski discusses how a handful of young directors were given low-budgets and creative freedom to create a series of productions after the explosive success of the independent film Easy Rider (1969). It’s a great concept and clearly inspirational as I looked up one of the films discussed: The Hired Hand (1971) right after listening.

Success Made to Last
Angela and Veronica Cartwright
June 11, 2020

I’ve long been fascinated by actress sisters Angela Cartwright and Veronica Cartwright. They seem to have made the transition from child stardom to adult roles gracefully and it’s been interesting to see them thrive and try new things throughout the years. It turns out they have also been deeply loyal to each other. Here they mostly talk about their relationship, thought they do share a few interesting tidbits about their lives as actresses and how remarkably lacking in jealousy of each other they have been. It’s an uplifting conversation.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls
Hedy Lamarr
April 7, 2020

For the budding young film fan: the story of how classic film star Hedy Lamarr’s side interest in inventing led to the development of groundbreaking cell phone technology. Read with great charm by Tatiana Maslany. This is a great podcast for kids, but I enjoyed this beautifully-produced episode myself.

Alan Alda: Clear + Vivid
They’ve Filled Our Lives with Laughter: Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
April 14, 2020

I keep forgetting to share this episode, and now with the passing of one of its guests, it is especially poignant. Alda had a great conversation with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, his friends of over forty years. Believe it or not, Reiner and Brooks knew each other for over seventy years. And yet here they talked about the early days of their careers as if it was just yesterday. It was intensely joyful listening to these three content and empathetic men enjoy each other’s company.

Lions, Towers & Shields
Cornelia is Trash, Or She's Not!
May 24, 2020

I'm glad Lions, Towers & Shields host Shelly Brisbin gave me the heads-up about her podcast in the comments on my last round-up, because she's got a great show. I loved this episode about My Man Godfrey (1936). I've seen this classic screwball comedy dozens of times and it was interesting to get another point of view from Shelly and her guests. They have a pleasant, informative chat that I found thought-provoking in a fresh and unpretentious way.

This is Not a Story About
Bela Lugosi
April 23, 2020

Director Ted Geoghan’s podcast about lesser known Hollywood stories has been one of my favorite quarantine listens. The concept of the show: start with a familiar subject and tell the story of something connected to, but not quite that subject. In this episode he shares the history of the Spanish language version of Dracula that filmed on the same Universal Studios sets as the 1930 English language version with Bela Lugosi, but at night. I’ve long thought the Spanish version to be a better film and this episode gave me some insight into why it all came together a little bit better than the English language production. I also adored the love story at the core of this production. A big, beautiful story wrapped up in 30 minutes.

On Blu-ray: Jane Fonda and Rod Taylor Sizzle in Sunday in New York (1963)

Sunday in New York (1963) is full of men deeply and ridiculously occupied with preserving the virtue of one woman. You could say it’s of its time, though that’s not entirely true. The elements of the film that haven’t aged well are much less cringe worthy because of a well-matched cast including Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor, and Cliff Robertson. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Based on the play by Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplay, most of the action happens in an impeccably-designed brick-walled Manhattan studio that is one of the great Hollywood apartments. It is the home of commercial pilot Adam Taylor (Robertson) a ladies’ man who has just about driven his favorite girl Mona (Jo Morrow) crazy with neglect.

When Adam finds himself on the ground and with a free afternoon, he tries to arrange a rendezvous with Mona, but the pair is thwarted by the unannounced arrival of his kid sister Eileen (Fonda) from Albany. She comes to her sibling in a fog of confusion about the male sex and he isn’t much help in clearing things up. He takes off with his girl, entirely oblivious to his hypocrisy in doing so, and Eileen decides to take in the town.

On a crowded bus, Eileen’s brooch gets caught on journalist Mike Mitchell’s (Taylor) suit and that meet cute seals it for them. It’s only a matter of time before they give in to each other and it’s a lot of fun watching them get there. Despite interference from Adam and Eileen’s obnoxious boyfriend (the perfectly cast Robert Culp), there’s no avoiding the heat these two generate. Between Taylor’s struggle to be decent and Fonda’s Barbarella-style “well maybe I’ll give it a try?” approach to romance, the tension is delicious.

One of the best things about Eileen and Mike is that they never have to deal with the annoying romantic comedy cliché of having to hate each other. Yes they have plenty to argue about, but even when they tangle it is all about achieving mutual respect. This is a couple with a lot in common and they have some space to enjoy each other’s company despite the chaos around them.

In one amusing exchange in which they discover a common love of music, they tangle over the name of pianist playing on the radio, mentioning the composer of the film’s jazzy and cheerful score Peter Nero. In a later scene, Fonda sees Nero in the flesh, playing piano at his own establishment Club Nero. I thought his running presence was a charming touch.

Though he doesn’t get much screen time, it was also great to see Jim Backus in a small role as Adam’s supervisor. He's one of those actors who always make a part seem more substantial than it is. Call it the Joan Blondell effect.

Sunday in New York is such a reliable mood lifter. Thanks to its sizzling cast, it’s always a bit sexier and smarter than its goofy plot. It’s the perfect watch for a mind in need of escape.

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

On Blu-ray: Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee in The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

The Reluctant Debutante (1958) is one of those rare raved-about films that I couldn’t access for years, but found it lived up to my expectations when I could finally watch it. Based on a play by British writer William Davis-Home (also co-scriptwriter here with Julius Epstein) and directed by Vincent Minnelli, it hurtles through predictable plot points in a delightfully unusual and offbeat way. This has much to do with its lively cast, led by the bizarre and hilarious Kay Kendall in a rare starring role. I was delighted when this film that I once struggled to find on VHS was recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Set during the debutante season, The Reluctant Debutante stars real life husband and wife Rex Harrison and Kendall as the also married Jimmy and Sheila Broadbent. Sheila is Jimmy’s second wife; he was once married to an American. The product of that first union, seventeen-year-old Jane (Sandra Dee) travels from the US to London to have a long visit with her father and the stepmother she has never met.

While Jane and Sheila get on well, their values are vastly different. The second Mrs. Broadbent wants very much for her stepdaughter to be a sensation during the season. Jane couldn’t care less about status and husband searching on the circuit, instead looking for fascinating subjects to photograph and much more interesting boys than the snooty bores circulating the balls.

Angela Lansbury complicates matters as Sheila’s nosy, but not unfriendly rival Mabel, who is also invested in propping up a young debutante: her daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare). A ridiculously boyish John Saxon adds more chaos as the polite, but worldly drum player with a reputation that Jane prefers to the upper crust swells.

Director Minnelli made little attempt to expand the action beyond the proscenium. With a cast like that he didn’t need to move far beyond four walls. Kendall had a way of expanding everything: herself, her surroundings, and the situation at hand. In a way you want her in a confined space so that you can appreciate every detail of her performance, because she works both big and small and it is a lot to take in. Harrison is a perfect foil for Kendall, essentially letting her have the fire, stepping out of the way, and taking his demotion to supporting spouse good-naturedly.

Tragically, Kendall was dying of cancer at the time of filming, a fact Harrison kept hidden from the actress, who thought she was suffering from an iron deficiency. She would die at age 33 in 1959. While she made several films throughout the 40s and 50s, she rarely found a role as juicy and well-suited to her talents as this one (Les Girls [1957] gave her another rare chance to shine).

With her sharp-edged beauty and screwball temperament, Kendall would have been a movie queen in the 1930s. Both onscreen and off she had the same merry, pedal-to-the-floor approach to living as Carole Lombard. Apparently she was also as joyfully foul-mouthed as her comedic soul sister.

As Jane, Sandra Dee is a precocious oasis of calm in the midst of Kendall’s whirlwind. Most young actresses would have faded away into dull straight-womanhood in this role. Dee can’t help but be compelling though. Even here at the age of fourteen she has a thoughtful gravity and a rare habit of listening carefully and learning quickly about the motives of those around her.

Saxon is equally calm, but magnetic. Having watched him play grizzled police detectives innumerable times over the years, it was amusing to see him in his dewy youth. These were the years where Hollywood seemed to think the Brooklyn-born actor should play Mexicans. He’s a good match for Dee, despite the slightly unsettling fact that this man is courting a girl who appears much younger than she is supposed to be.

With so many fascinating performers and the irresistible appeal of Kendall, this is a comedy romance that deserves more attention.

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

On Blu-ray: Robert Mitchum in a Film-Noir on the Range Blood on the Moon (1948)

The moody, fatalistic feel of Blood on the Moon (1948) is unusual for a western, if not unheard of in the genre. Its noirish story of double-crosses and turf battles could be transported to rain-slicked city streets with little change, the plot points as well-suited to urban organized crime as cattle wranglers on the prairie. The film recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in a print that shows the beautiful shadows of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past [1947]) to great advantage.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jim Garry, an aimless cowboy who is essentially a mercenary, but who likes to think he has some moral core. He takes a job serving as a cattle buyer for his old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston), believing that he is on the right side of a cattle dispute. When he finds that he has been manipulated by the deceptive Tate, he tries to come clean with wronged rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully).

Jim is pushed to the right side by Lufton’s daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). They meet cute when Amy assumes he is trespassing and takes a shot at him. He retaliates by shooting the heel off her boot. That’s as heated as it ever gets between the two though. Despite what we are told about their emerging romance, they always have a strong brother and sister vibe.

Mitchum has more chemistry with his male co-stars. He is carefully observant of Tate’s flashy manner and slick salesmanship (Preston doing a fine rehearsal for Music Man). Though Jim isn’t on to him right away, he listens closely to his friend, so that he understands how he could be the villain when the truth finally hits him. Their conversations have more weight because of his attention; you don’t feel like the words are floating away into meaninglessness.

One of the film’s highlights is a bar fight between Tate and Jim. Filmed with deep noir shadows, it has more emotional weight than your typical cowboy dust-up. Instead of the misguided heroics of most fist-to-fist cinematic match-ups, it makes clear how exhausting and unpleasant it is to try to beat the tar out of each other. Apparently this perspective was the deliberate choice of director Robert Wise, who appears set on challenging some of the simplistic tropes of the western.

Mitchum is also powerful in his scenes with Walter Brennan as a grieving homesteader. With his quirky old prospector voice, Brennan is often cast for comic relief, but here Wise give him space to display more emotional depth. When Jim comes to him with bad news, the director focuses on Brennan's face, illuminating the feelings of pain and loss he communicates with great subtlety.

While the director, cinematographer, and cast have much to do with Blood on the Moon being an above-average western, it is Mitchum who truly makes it special. While seeming to do very little, he dominates every scene: quiet, observant, and somehow more present than his fellow players. A true movie star who rejected the fuss that came with it.

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

On Blu-ray: Milos Forman's Giddy, Energetic Hair (1979)

When I was a kid, I used to love listening to my dad’s records. While he favored jazz, there were other things in the mix, like 60s rock, soundtracks and a few other pop culture touchstones, and that included the original Broadway cast recording of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's Hair. I don’t know what inspired 12-year-old me to listen to it, but I immediately loved the catchy, high energy songs. In the decades to follow I would realize how influential those tunes had been as I found them covered many times across different genres.

In all those years I never got around to seeing Hair on the stage or watching the 1979 film production directed by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]). A new Blu-ray release of the movie from Olive Films helped me to rectify that. While I enjoyed the film, I was left with a dramatically different feeling than I got from the record I adored as a child.

The story of a band of hippies grasping at the joys of life while dodging the draft for the controversial Vietnam War was a good fit for Forman. As a Czechoslovakian exile, he knew plenty about social upheaval. There’s a wealth of special features on the disc, including several short featurettes about various aspects of the production and a charming audio commentary by assistant director Michael Housman and lead Treat Williams and all point to Forman’s positive, open-minded approach to the film. In mixing established talents with less experienced performers and creating a positive, nurturing environment for all, he consequently embraced the revolutionary feel of the production.

Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D’Angelo lead a charismatic cast of characters through energetic renditions of the show’s lively tunes. The staging of songs as varied as “Hair,” “Where Do I Go,” and “I Got Life” is greatly helped by Twyla Tharp's innovative choreography. She worked well with a mix of dancers from her troupe and non-dancers cast for the film to build a mood of spontaneous energy that feels organic to both location and set-bound surroundings. That pulsing vibe is punctuated with stand-out vocal performances by Cheryl Barnes and Nell Carter who lend little bursts of star power to an essentially communal production.

1979 was a decade away from the times reflected in the original off and then on Broadway musical. While the stage production reflected the fury and passion of a movement in progress, Forman’s film found more whimsy in the hippy dippy lifestyle. That feeling is in opposition to the intensity of early stage productions which you can see in this performance from the 1969 Tony awards ceremony. The performances in this medley of songs from the show are grittier, funkier, and full of revolutionary fury. This is a unified group of young people who are rebelling because they believe in a better system and a brighter future. That’s a big contrast to the frolicking fun in the park that characterizes much of Forman’s film.

This is not to say that the adaptation doesn’t have its own powerful feeling of rebellion. It isn’t just sex, drugs, and play for Williams and his merry band of freaks. In an acid trip dream sequence that could only happen in a film, Forman with his own understanding of society in upheaval creates a tableau of giddy surreal happenings in which a pregnant Beverly d’Angelo soaring elegantly through the air is only a small part of the wildness.

Slightly removed from the times it reflected, Forman’s vision is in many ways removed from the show’s original feeling, but that distance gives it a timeless feel. It isn't just a comment on the past; it also draws out the core values in its revolutionary message which lit the fire in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

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

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

Enjoy the round-up. Titles link to episodes:

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

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

Micheaux Mission
Night of the Living Dead
October 16, 2019

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

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

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

The Movies That Made Me
Floyd Norman
June 9, 2020

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

Cinema Junkie
Donald Bogle
June 14, 2019

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

Rewind: Good Books About the Black Cinematic Experience

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

Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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