Apr 21, 2021

On Blu-ray: Teen Angst on the Airwaves in Pump Up the Volume (1990)


 

Pump up the Volume (1990) is decades newer than most of the films I review here. I do consider it deserving of modern classic status though. I wanted to write about it, because when I first saw it in the theater I expected it to make a bigger splash and influence more films like it. As it is, it has a solid cult following. Recently, I enjoyed revisiting it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

My 80s/90s crush Christian Slater stars as the shy, lonely Mark, a high school student uprooted from the East coast to the West for his father’s career as an educational administrator. Unable to connect with anyone at school, he finds a way to speak out via his raunchy and high-spirited pirate radio show. The students at his school discover his late-night ramblings and embrace him because he speaks to their emotional malaise, members of what he calls an “exhausted decade.” 

Having lived through this time as a teen, I did and still do relate to the blank feeling Pump up the Volume speaks to. It was a confused era for the young. Less politically aware than their parents and turned off by the consumerism of the eighties, these were the kids who listened to the rough and raw bands soon to be called grunge and learned about political injustice via the beats of Public Enemy, N.W.A., Iced T, and the like. 

Pump up the Volume nails the awkwardness of being a teenager. How your words never seem to come out right or not at all. How you have a lot to offer, but no idea how to share it. How you rebel because you want control, though you don't fully know what you'd do with the power. 

This was the first film Allen Moyle had directed since Times Square (1980), another movie that understood the awkwardness of not fitting in and the messy feeling of relationships when you are young. He would go on to direct what would become another cult youth favorite, Empire Records (1995). It’s a shame Moyle hasn’t made more films about the young, because he seems to have a good memory for how the confusion and disorder of growing up feels. 

When Pump up the Volume came out, I assumed it would inspire more films like it. It was raw, energetic, and empathetic in a way that directors like John Hughes could never tap. This was what teens were really like. Instead, there was a bit of a void in the teen market until lighter fare like She’s All That (1999) set a new template. 

Now, for better or worse, anyone can have a voice on social media. You don’t need Mark’s short wave radio set to reach the masses. As chaotic as that can be, I think it’s for the best. So many of our problems as a society are due to those without power having a voice and that has demonstrably proven to be one of the great perks of having free, potentially far-reaching platforms online. 

Of course, something that powerful is going to have significant drawbacks; the combination of freedom and the means to speak always do, but sometimes I think we forget how much it connects us. Instead of the one-way or occasionally two-way connections of Mark and his radio station, the exchange is faster, wider and in many ways more effective. 

Pump up the Volume is most powerful when it speaks to the need of having a voice and even more importantly, being heard. 


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

Apr 14, 2021

Book Review--Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism


 

Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism 
Terri Simone Francis 
Indiana University Press, 2021 

Josephine Baker was an anomaly in the early days of black representation in cinema. She never played a maid or a cook and she was always the star of her films. As the energetic star of films including Zouzou (1934), Siren of the Tropics (1927), and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), she offered a new perspective on Black actresses on the screen. That said, the way she was presented to her public had its complications. In a new book, Terri Simone Francis explores the legendary performer’s image and accomplishments on the screen. 

Before I picked up this book, I’d never watched a Josephine Baker film. I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed clips of her singing and dancing, I’ve read two biographies about her, I’ve even read a whole book about her Rainbow Tribe of adoptees from around the world. The only conclusion I can come to is that I assumed that a woman who walked down the streets of Paris with a Cheetah on a leash, had men fighting duals over her, and lived in glamour and chaos for decades could never be half as amusing in a film as she was in real life. 

I’m glad this book inspired me to fill in that hole in my cinematic education. I’m also happy to have been wrong, because while Baker didn’t think much of her films, she had presence and the camera loved her. This academic, but accessible deep dive into her film career and the impact of her image in the movies is thorough in considering what influenced her, how she reflected the current culture, and how she continues to be an influence today. 

Francis explores how Baker’s performance style was inspired by African dance and blues singers like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Clara Smith (with whom she performed in the US). She put her own comic lens on these varied influences and presented her take with a boldness that would later show in the style of top stars like Diana Ross and BeyoncĂ©. That vibrancy would translate well to the screen, where her mere presence was invigorating in addition to her energetic, unique dance style and solid comic chops. 

Baker’s films were intricate in the way they approached her role in society. While she was the glamorous and charismatic focus of attention, there was always a flavor of exoticism in the way she was portrayed. French colonialism also had a steady pull, keeping her centered, but not quite free. Wealthy white men might have found her alluring, but she was never the romantic focus. Francis thoughtfully details that uneasy balance of stardom and restriction that affected her film work, placing Baker in the complicated history of minstrelsy, Hottentot Venus, and other modes of Black performance and spectacle. 

This is an impressively thorough examination of a relatively short period of Baker’s career that nevertheless had a significant impact on her image and legacy. 


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

Apr 7, 2021

On Blu-ray: Ronald Colman in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1935)


The 1935 MGM production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth screen adaptation of the novel and the first to be made with sound. It followed the similarly grand David Copperfield, which had been released earlier in the year. While the film explores the drama of the French Revolution on a large scale, it is almost intimate in the way it explores love and sacrifice. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

The casting of the film for the most part is perfect because it is utterly unsurprising. Basil Rathbone settles cozily into his role as an icy, cruel Marquis, Edna Mae Oliver ties her bonnet and plays the perfect protective servant, and Elizabeth Allen performs with the reserve of someone who knows she is meant to be decorative. 

Ronald Colman on the other hand is a revelation. Throughout most of his career, he tended to play dashing, romantic, and plainly heroic characters. It’s fascinating to see him play a more downbeat and morally complex character. Much like Cary Grant, he could skate by on his charm and handsome face, but he had more to offer as an actor. This was a role he had long wanted and studied for and his total commitment shows in the performance. 

A Tale of Two Cities is a busy film. You get the feeling of a bag being quickly packed, stuffed full of important things that can’t be missed though there really isn’t enough room for everything. It’s a familiar issue for classic adaptations and especially the character-filled stories of Dickens. 

Still, it is an effective production and grand in a way only MGM could achieve at the time. While the crowds and clatter can be invigorating, the best moments focus on Colman and his personal response to public chaos. When in the midst of coldly efficient violence and cruelty he calmly meets his fate, it is immensely touching. In fact, it’s one of the great moments of classic cinema. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoons Hey, Hey Fever and Honeyland, audio of a radio adaptation of the story also starring Colman, and the amusing stereoscopic demonstration short Audioscopicks, which was nominated for an Oscar. 

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

Mar 31, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: March Roundup

For the first time in a long while, I think every podcast in my monthly round-up is new to this site. I love finding new shows, so if you've got a podcast, or one you enjoy that I haven't covered, please let me know in the comments!

Rarified Heir 
March 9, 2021 

This is a fascinating chat with Chris Lemmon, son of Jack Lemmon. He shares lots of charming memories about his dad and the more friendly Hollywood he grew up in. I especially loved hearing his stories about the real life characters in their family orbit, including Walter Mattheau and Christopher Walken.


Forgotten Film Cast 
January 15, 2021 

While I’ve known about the animated UPA production Gay Purr-ee (1962) for years, I’ve never seen it, so I was a bit alarmed to learn from this podcast that the plot involves trafficking of a cat bride. Of course it’s played for laughs, which is even weirder. And yet, I’m curious to see it after this conversation.

 


Beyond the Big Screen 

While I knew that John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn didn’t scream authenticity, this episode still stunned me, because it seems Hollywood got almost nothing right about Mongol history. The truth is as fascinating as the mishaps are amusing. 



The History of Film 
January 20, 2021 

I have long wanted to learn more about the French silent film comedian Max Linder. This was a good introduction to the actor.

Mar 26, 2021

On Blu-ray, Musical Delights for Troubled Times: My Dream Is Yours (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and Show Boat

With all the tension and troubles in the world right now, I nearly cheered at the opportunity to review this trio of musicals recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. Great music, gorgeous stars, and beautiful settings; there’s nothing like a well-made classic musical.


My Dream Is Yours (1949)
 

Doris Day followed her remarkably assured debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948) with another impeccable performance in My Dream Is Yours (1949). It’s amazing to me that this perfectly paced and charmingly acted film isn’t better known. The story of a single mother hustling with her determined manager to become a singing star is a perfect showcase for Day's daisy-fresh persona.

Day is paired again with Jack Carson. Next to Rock Hudson, I’ve always thought Carson was her best screen partner. They both have an energized, but effortless appeal, like neither of them has to work too hard to entertain. 

In addition to an amusing batch of catchy songs, including the cheerful Cutting Capers and the swoon worthy title tune, the film is full of visual delights, such as a bizarre dream sequence featuring Bugs Bunny, the elegant presence of an all-female radio orchestra, and lots of colorful costumes and sets. 

The supporting cast is a sharp crew of Warner Bros players including Eve Arden, Adolphe Menjou, and S.Z. Sakall, who is always a welcome sight, though it’s a shame none of his characters ever seemed to have an intellect above that of a preschooler. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Ham in a Role, the drama short The Grass Is Always Greener, and the comedy short So you Want to Be an Actor.


On Moonlight Bay (1951)
 

It’s funny to see Doris Day transition from the sunny, but savvy career girl in My Dream Is Yours to her role as an innocent teenager in On Moonlight Bay, but it’s impressive too because she pulls it off. 

I love the corny good cheer of this turn-of-the-century comedy (I hope the equally amusing sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon [1953] makes it to Blu-ray). It’s a great balm for tense times. 

Day plays tomboy Judy, who abruptly decides to switch gears and put on a dress when she meets the handsome Bill (Gordon McRae). Until World War I rolls around, nothing more traumatic than a broken leg happens in their pleasant, small town world. 

The film is a series of gentle vignettes, featuring a cast of appealing and under-used character actors including Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as her parents, the refreshingly unmannered Billy Gray as her brother, and Jack Smith as Judy’s handsome, but hapless and irritating suitor. The never under-used, ubiquitous Mary Wickes is also a delight as the family maid. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoon A Hound for Trouble, and the musical short Let’s Sing a Song About the Moonlight.


Show Boat (1951)
 

While there is much to love about the pink satin and ribbons MGM-style grandeur of George Sidney’s adaptation of this legendary stage musical, I’ve never fallen completely under its spell. 

For one, James Whale’s artistically lensed 1936 version captured the grittiness of the story with greater flair and having legendary personalities like Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on hand certainly helped. I’m also not a fan of the operatic singing style of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, which somehow doesn’t work as well for me on the screen as it would in a stage production. Viewers who like that style will find this film heavenly; I tend to resent it a little more because it meant that Ava Gardner’s lovely singing voice with that perfect Southern drawl had to be dubbed so that she’d fit the bill. 

As in Whale’s version, the supporting cast is delightful, featuring Joe E. Brown in an unusually reserved performance, Agnes Moorehead, William Warfield doing a wonderfully rumbly version of Ol' Man River, and Marge and Gower Champion as the show boat’s comedic team. Ava Gardner is the stand-out though: she’s passionate, raw, and unafraid to appear stripped of her glamour (she remains stunningly beautiful even when she's supposed to be ragged). 

It’s a fine spectacle, but I kept thinking back to Robeson, Morgan, and the magical way Whale filmed the sparkling river water. 

Special features on the disc include commentary by George Sidney, the Show Boat sequence from the 1946 musical Till the Clouds Roll By, an audio clip of Ava Gardner singing Bill and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, a Lux Radio on Theater Broadcast, and a theatrical trailer.

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

Mar 24, 2021

Theater Streaming: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland Fight the Power in Vietnam-era Documentary F.T.A. (1972)

Over the past few years of intensifying chaos in our world, I’ve often thought about the interviews Donald Sutherland gave to promote The Hunger Games, the first film in a franchise for which he portrayed the insidious President Snow. It was 2014 and he hoped that the film’s message would inspire young people to become “more politically aware.” It wasn’t long that reality, rather than cinema, brought that shift. 

As can be seen in the newly-restored and long obscure documentary F.T.A. (1972) (meaning: Free the Army or occasionally another more profane 'F' word), Sutherland has long been in the fight himself, much like his costar Jane Fonda. The film documents how an anti-war musical, comedy and dramatic performance troop, a sort of antidote to the cheerfully oblivious USO shows, led by Sutherland and Fonda on a tour of the US and Pacific Rim bases, brought comfort to members of the military who opposed the Vietnam War. 

Until now, F.T.A. has been difficult to see. The film was taken out of release only a week after it was released. According to director Francine Parker, that was due to a call from the White House. 

The restoration includes a new introduction by Jane Fonda which helps to put the film in context. She explains that she was challenged by GIs to get involved in the anti-war movement and that she accepted because she saw a significant resistance to US involvement in Vietnam within the military.


It’s a remarkable film in the way it respects the goal of Fonda, Sutherland, and company to focus on the needs and voices of the military members who question the actions of their government and the local activists in the places where they are stationed. They often take a back seat to the voices around them, thought notably taking the heat whenever there is government resistance or a disruptive audience member. It was gratifying to see Okinawan folk artists singing their protest songs and the troop members taking the time to listen to the concerns of their military audience. 

Fonda is particularly adept at switching roles, from vigorous spokesperson to empathetic listener. She speaks with a confidence and authority that was and continues to be challenging for many to accept from a woman and that she’s kept her intensity fresh for so many decades is inspiring. Here you also get the rare chance to observe her taking in GI stories, asking questions, and carefully processing what she hears with compassion and intelligence. This is a wealthy star who could have lived in uncomplicated luxury and instead has risked her safety and reputation throughout her whole adult life to fight for a better world. 

While Sutherland is less prominent in the film, it is clear he was committed to playing a supportive role in the resistance and understood the power in showing up and providing a platform for the voices that needed it. He’s always quietly mesmerizing when he does have the spotlight, as when he recites a passage from Johnny Got His Gun, demonstrating a perfect intersection between his dedication to his craft and his desire for justice.



The troop is appealing in its diversity and enthusiasm (members included Holly Near, Paul Mooney, and Rita Martinson). Folk singer and civil rights activist Len Chandler is a stand-out both for his musical talent and invigorating revolutionary zeal. Chandler is a great example of the spirit of the troop, holding up lyrics for a nervous military performer, enthusiastically boosting sing-alongs, listening supportively to the concerns of young black men understandably resistant to invading another country when they are not supported at home, and reveling in the community feeling meant to make those who resist feel less frightened and alone. 

The film has an unusual effect today. It is very much of its time, with artists hollering folk tunes, shouting for the release of Angela Davis from prison, and flashing peace signs, but all of the issues the artists, military personnel, and locals discuss are as pressing today as they were then. In observing a sketch where a white doctor beholds a heavily pregnant black woman and questions her condition, it’s chilling to think how that kind of disbelief is still dangerously prevalent in the medical community and continues to endanger lives. 

While it's frustrating to realize how long people have been fighting for the same issues, it's encouraging to think of the tenacity of some of these life-long activists. If Jane Fonda is still going. If Donald Sutherland is still going. If Angela Davis is still going. Then we can keep it up too. F.T.A. reinforces the importance of compassion and community in that fight. 

F.T.A. is streaming virtually via Kino Marquee . 

Many thanks to Kino for providing access to the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Kino.

Mar 17, 2021

On Blu-ray: Real Life Marrieds Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in Room for One More (1952)


 

Based on the 1950 autobiography by Anna Perrott Rose, Room for One More (1952) is a charming and surprisingly edgy story about a family that fosters two troubled children. Starring the then-married Betsy Drake and Cary Grant, it’s an interesting mix of humor, drama, and ideas about parenting that are sometimes dated, but more often forward-thinking and bold. I recently enjoyed the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

It’s amusing that Drake and Grant were actually husband and wife at the time of filming, because while they have great chemistry onscreen together, they appear so different. With her sensible hair and modest beauty, Drake looks like a middle class housewife. On the other hand, the tanned, sexy Grant, with his sleekly pomaded hair looks like a movie star. Of course, it is most important that they are believable as parents and both connect well with their movie brood (which includes the always delightful little-old-man-child George “Foghorn” Winslow). 

Drake is the steady half of the pair. She knows what it takes to keep her household happy and healthy. While it is an enormous, risky thing to add two struggling children to a family that already has three, she handles difficult situations with serenity and she does so by giving the kids the power to make their own happiness and security. 

Grant has his own moments of parenting brilliance. His is the final decision in bringing teenaged orphan Jane (Iris Mann) into the fold for good and he has an amusing discussion about the birds and the bees with a clueless Jimmy-John (Clifford Tatum Jr.). However, his primary job is to be the family doofus and he fills that role brilliantly, with double takes, physical humor, and an instinct for how to draw the most hilarity out of his interactions with a cast of children he seems to enjoy. 

The Rose house is a chaotic tumble of adorable children and animals, but there are a couple of things that keep the film from falling into sloppy sentimentality. One, Jane and Jimmy-John are deeply affected by the trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives and while the solutions to their anguish are occasionally a little too pat, they’re based in practical thinking. The other, more amusing element is that this family film is filled with references to Poppy’s extreme horniness in a setting where fulfilling the needs of five children is a 24-hour job. 

It’s an unusual film, somehow both sweet and brutal, and always attuned to the fact that we are at our best when we look out for each other. 

Special features on the disc include the classic cartoons Operation Rabbit and Feed the Kitty, and a theatrical trailer. 


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

Mar 10, 2021

Book Review: Shooting Midnight Cowboy

 


Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and The Making of a Dark Classic
Glenn Frankel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

John Schlesinger was not in attendance at the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony when he won the best director Oscar for Midnight Cowboy (1969). He had his towering blonde star John Voight accept on his behalf, and asked the actor to highlight the contribution James Leo Herlihy’s source novel had made to the success of the film. For that reason I find it interesting that in writing about the making of the film, Glenn Frankel has also spotlighted Herlihy as the heart and soul of the project. 

Writers, whether of screenplays or novels are rarely given such prominent recognition in the making of a film, which makes it especially satisfying to see Herlihy’s central role in the film’s production history. It is also appropriate, because the wistfully drifting spirit which defines the film comes directly from the author and the way he processed the turbulent scene in late sixties New York. 

Before digging into the particulars of the production, Frankel sets the scene by using Herlihy’s story to reflect his own personal imprint on the novel and the dramatic change of the times he lived in. For a while I felt impatient to get into the production back story, but this background is essential to understanding the film and how it was made. That said I enjoyed the details of the production in the second half of the book so much more that I think these opening chapters could have been more effective if they were at least somewhat condensed. 

While Midnight Cowboy was a studio production, United Artists was a different kind of studio, and Schlesinger was able to make his movie with more of an independent eye. The book is at its best when it explores how that freedom allowed a feeling of creative, collaborative community during filming and in the creation of key elements such as the script, set, and costumes. A lot of the film’s authenticity is thanks to that liberty, like the fun of costume designer Ann Roth spotting a key piece in the backseat of a hustler’s car or the way Schlesinger was able to use unusual lighting and different kinds of cameras to achieve his vision. 

Frankel is also diligent in recording the stories of those made most vulnerable in the process. Often a production history will focus on the ravings of the director (Schlesinger had his moments) or the drama between the stars (in this case, Dustin Hoffman and Voight were strong collaborators). I appreciated that Frankel acknowledged less prominent stories like the emotional torment Schlesinger’s partner Michael Childers endured from the crew as his assistant and the trauma actress Jennifer Salt suffered in filming a graphic rape scene. He also acknowledges casting director Marion Dougherty’s essential role in the success of the film and the frustration she felt being overlooked for her contributions. 

I found this production history more satisfying than most, partly because of how Frankel acknowledges that exploring the times in which it was made is key to understanding this particular film, but also because he gets the complexity of filmmaking and the necessity of capturing small details that affect the whole. 


Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 3, 2021

On Blu-ray--Laurel or Hardy: Early Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy


 

Before Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy became one of cinema’s greatest comedy teams, they each had thriving solo careers in silent movies. Now a new release from Flicker Alley, Laurel or Hardy: Early Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, brings thirty-five of these early films to Blu-ray, newly restored by the Library of Congress and Blackhawk Films and featuring fresh piano scores by some of the best accompanists in the business. 

Often billed as “Babe” Hardy, Oliver Hardy appeared in hundreds of films early in his career, both as star and bit player. Laurel made fewer films as a solo act, but was lead player in more of them than his future partner. 

Music hall veteran Laurel seems to have come to the movies with his screen persona essentially developed. His toothy grin, occasional fits of bawling with mouth wide open, playful impishness, and a general feeling of being resourceful, but also tossed about by the world all transferred to his partnership with Hardy. Aside from playing second banana to Larry Semon (whom he disliked) in Bears and Bad Men (1918), Laurel is the main attraction in the titles featured here. 

Hardy’s screen image was much more diverse in his early years. He shows himself to be the stronger actor of the two, with an ability to pivot from angry bully to soft Mama’s boy so smoothly that he sometimes seemed like different people from film to film. He often plays support to other players in his shorts here: Semon (again) and the Charlie Chaplin impersonator Billy West among them. His appearance is also quite different: Laurel never went heavy on the make-up, while Hardy often wore heavy eyebrows and a mustache, a look which dates his early films more than his eventual partner’s. 

The booklet included in the set is a helpful guide to the period and the films, adding important context about where each man was in his career at the time of filming and highlighting early concepts that were later revisited in the films the comedians made as a duo. 

Overall, the effect of the set is a bit stunning. When you think of what it must have taken to restore them, to see these films that are over a century old looking as sharp and clean as they do and accompanied with such loving care is miraculous . They’re important because of their place in film history, but they’re also a riot to watch and a testament to the timeless nature of great comedy. 


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

Feb 26, 2021

Vera West: Universal's Queen of Ghoul Glamour


 
My latest video is about the talented and tragic Universal Studios costume designer Vera West. She was one of the first women to head a costume department at a major studio. While she made her mark in a variety of genres, her most influential work was in horror, including some of the most famous Universal chillers. This is her story:


   


 If you like this, I invite you to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

Feb 24, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: February Round-up


Before I start with this month’s recommendations, I want to briefly mourn the end of one of my favorite podcasts Switchblade Sisters. The last episode will drop on February 25. I’ve featured some of the more classic-leaning episodes of the show in my round-up before. I was always grateful for the thoughtful insights from host April Wolfe and her guests. I highly suggest listening to the archives of the podcast if you enjoy genre film. 

I also recommend this week's episode, featuring director Nora Unkel talking about The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).


I Saw What You Did
February 2, 2021

Bill Gunn. Kathleen Collins. Two filmmakers who would have set the world on fire if they were white. Gunn knew it and he spoke out about it. We can still appreciate their accomplishments. This episode is a great place to start. Such a gorgeous tribute. I'm grateful for this show.
Quote Tweet


NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour 
February 2, 2021 

The always insightful Jourdain Searles talks about her favorite Cicely Tyson performances. This brief episode was just what I needed to process the passing of this prolific and profound actress. 



The Film Programme 
January 31, 2021 

I had a huge grin on my face while listening to this interview with Leslie Caron. She speaks elegantly and affectionately about her career, including her time dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I imagined her dressed in a Chanel suit, touching the rim of a teacup as she reminisced. Such class and intelligence.

Feb 17, 2021

On Blu-ray: High-Stepping Co-eds in Good News (1947)


 

The sparkling collegiate musical Good News (1947) is a good fit for the talents of leads June Allyson and Peter Lawford, though it is briskly stolen by Joan McCracken in a supporting role and featured player Mel Torme. The film looks and sounds great on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive which also offers a peek at the even peppier 1930 film version of the Broadway show.

Allyson stars as Connie, a serious student working multiple jobs to support herself at the swank Tait College in 1927. She tutors the self-absorbed football star Tommy (Peter Lawford) and they start a flirtation, though he’s still stuck on the snobby Pat (Patricia Marshall) who wants him for his massive inheritance. Amidst this drama there’s prom, further romantic maneuvering, and the requisite big football game. 

While Allyson was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a college student, she’s charming in the role. I’ll admit I’ve never enjoyed her eager-to-please vibe, but she’s sympathetic here and has great chemistry with Lawford. He makes his feather-light talents work despite clearly having no business being in a musical. 

While the pair is a pleasant match, it’s hard to accept Connie with a guy as selfish and insensitive as Tommy. You want to tell her to run away while she still can. 

In contrast to the gently appealing vibe of Allyson and Lawford’s scenes, supporting player Joan McCracken is like a box of firecrackers. Everything about her is brightly charismatic and exciting, but when she starts to dance she inspires ecstatic joy. The Broadway star didn’t make a lot of movies and it’s a shame, because somehow her stage style works brilliantly on the screen. In the opening of the film and especially leading the film’s centerpiece, the Pass That Peace Pipe production number, Cracken appears effortlessly precise and filled with the joy of performance. 

There are other pleasant songs and engaging dances in the film and Allyson and Lawford lead a delightfully engaging finale, but the Pass That Peace Pipe scene is a marvel that stands on its own. It’s an astonishing feat of precision, with dozens of dancers packed tight in a soda shop set, moving quickly and efficiently, with limbs flailing, all perfectly in-sync. The energy popping in that scene is heart-pounding. This is what makes Good News a true classic. 

I also felt a bit swoony every time featured player Mel Torme appeared onscreen. He doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. You get the impression he wasn’t much of an actor, but who cares with that voice? As it is, he makes the most of the time he gets the spotlight in Lucky in Love, strumming an ukulele, and demonstrating in his easygoing way why he was known as the “Velvet Fog.”

The disc special features are especially entertaining; there’s a couple of fantastic clips from the high-energy 1930 version of Good News (which used more of the songs from the stage version), a radio interview with June Allyson, the deleted musical number An Easier Way, and a theatrical trailer. There’s also a menu with links that go 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.

Feb 10, 2021

On Blu-ray: Baby Doll (1956) Terrorizes the Catholic Legion of Decency


 

Baby Doll (1956) is an outrageous, erotic, woozy ride. Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, it consistently pushed the limits of respectability and almost entirely through the power of suggestion. Screenwriter/Playwright Tennessee Williams had plenty to write about life in a heated Southern milieu, and this was one of his boldest statements. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Carroll Baker is the titular Baby Doll Meighan, a nineteen-year-old who is married to the scummy and horny cotton miller Archie (Karl Malden). She was his child bride; it was her dying father’s way of ensuring she was cared for, but the pair has struck a bargain that they won’t go to bed until she’s twenty. 

However, now that they’re one sleep away from the big day, Baby Doll is reluctant to fill her side of the bargain. Of course Archie is eager to make things official with his bride, but he’s distracted by crime: he burns down the cotton mill of his competitor, the Italian immigrant Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach). 

Vacarro quickly figures out the cause of his misfortune and he comes to the Meighan residence to get proof, knowing that the community around him will not protect him and that he needs all the evidence he can get. He attacks with charm. Baby Doll is home alone, so he attempts to woo the information out of her. 

Accustomed to being leered at by the disheveled and vile Archie, she’s confused and excited by the attentions of this slick and handsome man in black. They both enjoy what turns into an afternoon of seductive games. Of course Vacarro is laser-focused on getting a signed confession from Baby Doll and protecting his interests, but he finds himself increasingly delighted by their erotic interactions. Flustered and stunned by the methods of this man with gentlemanly tendencies and dignity, Baby Doll begins to realize she couldn't tolerate Archie ever touching her. 

It’s all a heated mess of desires, with Baby Doll the only innocent (even her elderly Aunt Rose Comfort [Mildred Dunnock] proves herself to be greedy and dishonest); though over the course of a day she grows up a lot. Archie is all greed and lust; there’s no nuance. On the other hand, Vacarro is complicated. While he’s ferociously focused on his own interests, he has the sense to slow down and appreciate the charm of the woman he is seducing, and somehow manage to have it both ways. 

The featurette Baby Doll: See No Evil is included in the special features on the disc. It includes interviews with Baker, Wallach, and Baker. In a jaw dropping moment, Baker says she was surprised that the film was viewed as scandalous. 

Baker herself said that they were all probably so wrapped up in the process of filming that they didn’t process the reality of what they were making. Talk about being absorbed. I don’t see how anyone involved with Baby Doll could have missed how outrageous it was, because every moment of this film throbs with eroticism. I have often wondered how it was ever made in the conformist climate of the 1950s. Did the studio see the name Tennessee Williams and think “prestigious playwright, we’re good”? 

Even at the time it was made, Baby Doll tread a complicated path: while it aroused moral indignation, it also won major attention during award season. In a way it isn’t hard to understand. It’s simply a great film: entertaining, phenomenally acted, beautifully staged by director Elia Kazan, and full of brilliant insights about human desire. 

In addition to the featurette, the special features on the disc include 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 .

Feb 8, 2021

Writing Elsewhere: Film Discoveries of 2020 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks


 

If you're looking for film recommendations, take a look at the list I compiled of my favorite film discoveries of 2020 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks! This is a great series, full of amazing contributions. I recommend checking out the other lists as well.

Feb 3, 2021

On Blu-ray: William Powell and Myrna Loy in After The Thin Man (1936)


 

William Powell and Myrna Loy were perfectly matched as Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man detective film series. For that reason, of the six movies they made as the tippling marrieds, the entries that focused most on their relationship were the best. After the Thin Man (1936), the second film featuring the Charles' is especially good for that reason. I recently watched the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the film and enjoyed revisiting one of the best screen marriages. 

After the Thin Man doesn’t waste time building up a mystery in its opening scenes. It knows what the audience wants to see and blasts you right into the sparkling presence of Loy and Powell. After their crime-busting New York adventure, they’re returning to the West Coast, where they’re greeted by Asta, his missus and a lively litter of puppies. They’re also supposed to be surprised by a gathering of their friends, though in one of the film’s funniest scenes the party is too wild for anyone to notice the guests of honor have arrived. 

After a good taste of that Charles charm, the mystery begins. Nora drags Nick to dinner with her stuffy relatives and the pair learns that her cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) is distraught over the disappearance of her husband. While the couple tracks him down, it turns out he’s not a great guy and his plotting and deception leads to trouble for all. 

It’s quite a feat to distinguish oneself in the company of Loy and Powell, but Jimmy Stewart does just that as an old friend of Selma’s who carries a torch for her. He was still in the wobbly early phase of his career where he was just as likely to be tossed into a musical as a comedy or drama. Here he combines that doddering quality for which he would become famous with startling moments of dramatic intensity. He was previewing better things to come. 

I’m not sure what to make of the way Nick and Nora’s relationship is portrayed in the films. In the original Dashiell Hammett novel, they’ve clearly got an open marriage. Of course the Code could never allow such an arrangement, but there always seems to be a breath of that permissiveness in the films, in this case when Nick shows up with lipstick on his face and Nora wipes it off, entirely unfazed. 

The idea certainly fits with their happy rejection of polite society. You get a sense of how bored Nora was before she met Nick. She seems happy being surrounded by ex-cons, drinking into the night, and not only accepts that her man has a sketchy past and is in many ways dishonorable, she counts on it. Their love for each other is solid and the rest is just a gas. 

Special features on the disc include the Robert Benchley short How to Be a Detective, the classic cartoon The Early Bird and the Worm, a radio show featuring Powell and Loy, a Leo Is on the Air radio promo, and a theatrical trailer. 

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

Jan 27, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: January Round-up

I was grateful to have so many podcasts I wanted to listen to over this turbulent past month. It was wonderful to escape into the great conversations and fascinating facts in these well-crafted shows:

Imaginary Worlds Podcast 
Betty Boop and the Hays Code 
January 20, 2021 

I like the format of this podcast: host Eric Molinsky interviews several experts about his subject, in this case, Betty Boop and her journey from Pre-code short skirts to high collars and low hems. Here he talks to Thomas Dougherty, Marya Gates, and Boop co-creator Max Fleischer’s grandson Mark (his wife Susan Wilking Horan weighs in with some great insights as well). It was like listening to a well-written magazine article.



Comedy History 101 
February 28, 2020 

I’ve long known how Charlie Chaplin’s films and image were liberally ripped off in the movie industry during his heyday, but this was the first I’d heard about the actual men who impersonated him. Billy West, the most prominent Chaplin imitator gets the most attention here; apparently his inspiration walked by while he was filming and praised his work. I was amused by the stories of the other imitators as well though, especially the hilariously-named Charlie Aplin.

Classic Movie Musts 
January 8, 2021 

Writer Jeremy Arnold (The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) shares his impressive film knowledge as he discusses the early caper film The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). I don’t remember loving this Alec Guinness classic when I first saw it years ago; after listening to this episode I’m eager to give it another try.


Cinema Shame 
January 18, 2021 

Nora Fiore (aka The Nitrate Diva) has the widest-ranging, most infectious love for film. It’s always a delight to hear her talk about cinema, because she gets right to the heart of why it is so appealing and how it connects with the world around us. Here she and host James Patrick discuss a fascinating selection of Films Noir: some classic, some lesser known. A good place to find viewing suggestions, but the conversation is fascinating in itself.

Jan 19, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Bizarre, Beautiful Spectacle of The Pirate (1948)


You never hear anyone say that The Pirate (1948) is their favorite musical, or even their favorite MGM musical, but this unusual and boldly vibrant film is worthy of its own pedestal. I recently re-watched the Vincente Minnelli-directed production on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive and I found the gaudy delight that I had admired in past viewings has retained its appeal.

Of all the set-bound musicals, The Pirate is perhaps the most tightly-confined. It exists in a brightly-colored bubble consisting of a few settings, but for the most part centers on a bustling public square meant to represent a Caribbean town. 

It is there that Gene Kelly bursts onto the scene as Serafin a mischievous traveling actor setting up shop with his troop. Judy Garland is Manuela a local who is just about to marry the mayor of the city; yes it is a stretch to accept her as a Manuela.

Manuela is obsessed with the notorious Macoco, a pirate who represents adventure, virility, and escape. She is about to embark upon a life of comfort and ease as a wealthy man’s wife and the thought horrifies her. When she believes Serafin is Macoco, she falls hard, but the problem is that she sees what she wants to see when the truth is right in front of her.

This light plot serves as the structure for a giddy, lively scenario. The town square is full of extras in bizarre costumes. They are swathed in velvets and silks, stripes and polka dots, with outrageous splashes of color and clashing patterns. It’s busy and a lot to process visually, but it perfectly expresses the chaos of Manuela’s inner life which is now marching out for public view.

Kelly has played his share of rascals, but I’ve never seen him as randy as he is here. In his first number, he swirls around a cast of beautiful, haughty women, making it abundantly clear exactly what he wants and that he’s not the type to settle down. As he leans in to kiss a lovely lady, he sucks his lit cigarette into his mouth, letting it pop out when his task is completed. It is a precursor to the first time he sees Manuela, when in reaction to her beauty he lets a slow stream of smoke trail out of his mouth.

In line with the heated Mr. Kelly, Garland has never been so sultry. With her bright red lips and dreamy fits of fantasy, she is passion incarnate. Minnelli knew just how to show his star, and wife, to her best advantage. Here under his tender care she is transformed into a glowing temptress. It’s a pleasure simply to watch her raise a questioning eyebrow because she is so lovingly filmed.

The vibrant cast of characters gathered in the square does much to add to the mood of vibrancy and excitement. I found it exciting to see so many Black actors in dignified and lavish dress included in the mix, something you rarely got to see in that era. There are moments that drag a bit in The Pirate, but a glimpse of this milieu always gets things going again.

While the Cole Porter score doesn’t have the fire of his best works, the cheerfully tuneful Be a Clown is a high point. Garland and Kelly dance to the tune, but the highlight is Kelly’s dance with the Nicholas Brothers Harold and Fayard. They were a well-matched trio because all three dancers favored athletic, precise moves and high-energy choreography.

While it doesn’t have the robust roster of tunes to make it the best and brightest of the MGM musicals, this delightfully odd production is hugely entertaining, with its stars clearly enjoying the strange, but fascinating tone of it all.

Special features on the disc include commentary by historian John Fricke, a making-of featurette, a vintage comedy short and cartoon, a stereo remix of Mack the Black, song outtakes, promotional radio interviews with Garland and Kelly, and a theatrical trailer. 


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

Jan 13, 2021

Book Review--Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s

 


Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s 
Kimberly Truhler 
Good Knight Books, 2020 

Having read as many books about film noir as humanly possible, with the publication of Kimberly Truhler’s Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s I was surprised to realize it was the first I’d read dedicated to the fashion of the genre. Given how influential the looks from these years have been on style, all the way to the present day, that’s surprising. Truhler ably manages the task of exploring the most distinctive looks of forties noir, how they were created, and their influence on fashion. 

Film Noir Style covers twenty films, appropriately arranged in sections relative to World War II. By dividing the selections into pre-war, wartime, transition, and post-war, Truhler is able to note the dramatic changes in style that came with each period, where rationing, changes in the status of women, and a radically shifting United States all played a role in the looks that made it to the screen. Because those changes were so dramatic, it helps that each section begins with an general overview of each period covered.

Truhler notes the direct line from German Expressionism to Film Noir, as directors like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg brought a shadowy style with them to Hollywood after cutting their teeth at the famous German studio UFA. This moodiness extends to the clothing: dark, sensual, and spare due to wartime rationing.

While many of the most famous designers are represented here: Irene, Edith Head, and Orry-Kelly among them, I was especially fascinated to learn about lesser-known costumers who created highly influential work, like RKO’s Edward Stevenson (Out of the Past [1947], Murder My Sweet [1944]) and Universal’s Vera West (The Killers [1946]). Some of these artisans seem to have drawn inspiration from their own noir-like lives, with West the most unfortunately similar to a doomed character she might have costumed.

The film selection features many clear noir classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Laura (1944), but also includes some interesting outliers like The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Lady in the Lake (1946). While they didn’t all strike me as solid noirs (not entirely in agreement that Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious [1946] is a noir, though it’s not completely off-base as a choice), they work well together as a reflection of genre style.

While the book is filled with jaw dropping pictures of many of the fashions discussed, I found myself a bit frustrated by their arrangement. It would have been nice to have seen more of the photos presented alongside the text describing them and perhaps have some sort of footnote-like reference to make everything easy to find. Of course, it would have been ideal, and likely very difficult to manage, to have pictures of all the costumes described in the book, but the representation here is excellent. Just have a good search engine on hand.

Overall this is a thoughtfully written book which elegantly pulls together the threads of society, cinema, and the brilliance of costumers. In the end I was struck by how personal costuming can be: created for specific characters, plots, and body shapes, and yet it can influence the daily fashion choices of a wide audience around the world and across time. Something to think about the next time you shop for a trench coat or a dramatic black gown.

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

Jan 6, 2021

On Blu-ray: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Mortal Storm (1940)


 

The Mortal Storm (1940) presents a personal view of how the Nazi regime first began to devastate the world. It finds the poison at the root of its rise and demonstrates how quickly it spread. While it is a difficult film to watch, the charm of its stars and director Frank Borzage’s powerful imagery make it simultaneously fascinating. I recently revisited the film via a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Margaret Sullavan stars as Freya Roth, a German college student, daughter to the respected Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), on the edge of being engaged to Fritz, one of his students (Robert Young), and loved by Martin, her lifelong friend (Jimmy Stewart). She lives with her parents (mother Emilia played by Irene Rich) and her brothers (Robert Stack and William T. Orr). 

A peaceful family birthday celebration with these core characters is halted by the news that Adolf Hitler has become chancellor. Their lives are  changed in a moment. The intrusion is abrupt and decisive. 

Immediately the ideological divisions among the once cheerfully united guests are made clear. All that came before, joyful scenes of skiing, singing in the pub, the birth of a foal, is slapped away. The rules of society shift. 

Nazi salutes are expected. Soldiers beat non-believers in the street. No one is immune, a fact illustrated by the varied struggles of the young as symbolized by a teenage housemaid (a touching Bonita Granville), Martin’s morally solid mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), and the sudden upheaval of the lives of everyone who falls in between. 

Of course it’s clear from the beginning that the entitled and briskly regimental Fritz is not the man for gentle Freya. This is one of the last of the four films Sullavan and Stewart starred in together (also Next Time We Love [1936], The Shopworn Angel [1938], The Shop Around the Corner [1940]) and their low-key camaraderie is more soothing than sizzling, but they are an appealing team. 

As the heads of the Roth family, Morgan and Rich demonstrate the kind of affection and loyalty the younger couple could achieve in later years. In a harrowing prison meet-up, Borzage’s elegant composition gives the pair a moment of intimacy in the midst of the horror. Simple, spare, but somehow warm compositions like these give the film an air of wistfulness for better times and a sense of what’s good and what’s worth fighting for. 

It’s impossible to miss the parallels to the present day: the turn to ideology over empathy, science, learning, even logic. This tense, scary milieu is made more meaningful decades later, where you know that things can better, and they can get worse, but there are always good people who are determined to fight for the greater good. 

Special features on the disc include the cartoon Peace on Earth, the short Meet the Fleet, and a theatrical trailer.

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