A classic movie friend let me know that we still have a few days left to make nominations to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for the 2017 year. You can make nominations until September 15, 2017, so if you want to contribute to this year's list you should head on over to the website this week.
The National Film Registry's 2016 additions included Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Birds (1963), along with lots of more recent movies like The Princess Bride (1987) and The Lion King (1994). Even though the registry grows each year, my fellow old movie fans will be amazed at some of the classics that haven't yet made the cut; the Library of Congress has a handy list so that people can easily see which of their favorites needs to be nominated. Each person can nominate up to fifty movies on the site's online form; you just need the title and the release year.
I sat down and used the site's list to come up with 50 films that I think should be included in the National Film Registry. Here are the movies I nominated; I hope you'll make time to nominate some, as well! Feel free to share your nomination list in the comments section or shoot me a link if you post your list on your own blog.
Virtual Virago's 50 Nominations to the National Film Registry for 2017
(links go to full reviews of the films on this blog)
The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Night Nurse (1931)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Captains Courageous (1937)
Stella Dallas (1937)
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Dark Victory (1939)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Letter (1940)
They Drive by Night (1940)
High Sierra (1941)
The Black Swan (1942)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Uninvited (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scarlet Street (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Easter Parade (1948)
Fort Apache (1948)
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Westward the Women (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Everyone's picks will reflect personal tastes and passions; mine skew toward the genres of film noir and classic horror with favorite actors like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Tierney also getting a lot of attention. Of course I'm going to pick Val Lewton whenever possible, which explains the three Lewton pictures - and I didn't even add Lewton films that aren't already on the Library's list, like Bedlam (1946). Even though I only paid lip service to the silent era (for which I feel terrible), I still ran out of slots by the time I reached the early 1950s, and I had to go back and remove a few choices to squeeze in a couple of favorites there at the end. If nothing else, putting together a nomination list will tell you who and what you value most when it comes to classic movies.
Monday, September 11, 2017
Thursday, August 31, 2017
Gig Young plays the painter Walter Hartright, who gets drawn into intrigue when he becomes a drawing master to pretty heiress Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) at Limmeridge House. Walter falls for Laura but is warned of her engagement to Sir Percival Glyde (John Emery) by Laura's cousin, Marian (Alexis Smith). When Walter accuses Sir Percival and Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) of a diabolical plot involving a mad girl who strongly resembles Laura, Marian tells him to leave, but both Laura and Marian soon discover that Walter's suspicions were correct. Reunited some months later, Walter and Marian realize that Laura's double has died and been buried as Laura herself; together, they set out to rescue Laura from an asylum and restore her true identity.
The most appealing of the novel's sympathetic characters is Marian Halcombe, and the film recognizes this fact even as it rewrites much of her role. Alexis Smith gives a fine performance as the intelligent, capable Marian, who serves as a foil to the delicate and rather insipid Laura. Eleanor Parker is actually more interesting as mad Ann, Laura's double, than she is as Laura herself, and sadly that's a fault that the film keeps from the original text, in which Laura is a demure Victorian angel made damsel in distress. Both actresses give better performances than poor Gig Young, whose Walter seems very stiff for a lover who can't decide which girl he likes. Walter's role in the novel as de facto detective doesn't really carry over into the movie, and this leaves Young with little to do but strike poses and lock eyes with both of his leading ladies.
The action depends much more on the heavies, especially Greenstreet's Count Fosco as the prime mover of the plot. Greenstreet has just the combination of charm and menace, as well as the impressive girth, that make Fosco so fascinating as a literary villain, and if you like Greenstreet in other films you'll enjoy his performance here. John Emery's Sir Percival is just a thug in comparison, always eager to jump into murder, while John Abbott is delightfully awful and ineffectual as Laura's hypochondriac Uncle Frederick. Only Agnes Moorehead enjoys any ambiguity about her character's intentions; her Countess Fosco is an odd, repressed figure who has her own reasons for hating Fosco and pitying the plight of poor Ann. Fans of the actress will be sorry that she doesn't have more scenes, but she gets quite a moment in the film's climax as compensation.
The problems with The Woman in White might lie more with Stephen Morehouse Avery's screenplay than Peter Godfrey's direction or any actor's performance, but flaws it definitely has, although some of them are only apparent to those familiar with Collins' source material. Godfrey's best film, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), also stars Greenstreet, but most people remember the rotund actor most for his appearances in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). You can see Alexis Smith play nasty in Godfrey's 1947 picture, The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Eleanor Parker went on to earn three Best Actress nominations for her roles in Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), and Interrupted Melody (1955). Gig Young gets more to do in The Three Musketeers (1948), Torch Song (1953), and Desk Set (1957), and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Chaney plays the magician Phroso, who loses the use of his legs in a fight with Crane (Barrymore), the man who is stealing his wife. Later the wife turns up again with a baby in tow and promptly dies. Over his wife's corpse, Phroso swears vengeance on Crane and his child, thus embarking on an eighteen year mission to ruin Crane, debauch his daughter, and murder them both by invoking the ritual sacrifice performed by a tribe of African cannibals. Phroso makes himself a voodoo master in the remote African camp by using his magician's tricks, but his relentless desire for revenge blinds him to a painful truth until it is almost too late to change.
Chaney's performance is the highlight here. He begins as a sympathetic victim, a good man buffeted by unkind fate. His world crumbles when his beloved wife abandons him and her suitor cripples him, but these events alone do not change him. He only chooses evil over good in the church where he finds his wife's body, with the helpless infant crying nearby. The scene swells with terrible irony; Phroso looks on the Virgin and Child, and instead of pity for his wife's daughter chooses hate. From then on he embraces cruelty, sending the girl to be raised in a Zanzibar brothel while he cheats Crane of his ivory haul. Chaney plays Phroso as tragic, then monstrous, with slight hints of the vestiges of his humanity peeking through from time to time just to remind us of what he once was. His dead legs provide a physical parallel to his withered soul, and Chaney is, of course, brilliant in the way he manages to convey both the bodily and the spiritual wreckage.
Everyone else mainly reacts to Chaney, and the emotions called for are horror, disgust, fear, and loathing. In his own way, Lionel Barrymore's Crane is just as much a monster as Phroso, wreaking havoc and creating misery without ever worrying about the consequences of his actions. He laughs at Phroso's folly because he feels no pity for its victims. Mary Nolan, as Maizie, is chief among these; her tragic eyes and body language suggest so much more about her suffering than the title cards can convey. Warner Baxter plays a good man mired in Hell as Doc, but Maizie's arrival stirs his numbed conscience, and the pair eventually gather the courage to defy Phroso. These two characters get more nuanced development in the 1932 version of the story, Kongo, which fleshes out the doctor's narrative and their budding romance. The superstitious natives also react to Phroso, but they're so hideously stereotyped that they remove the viewer from the moment, and it's hard to blame the actors playing them for being unenthusiastic about selling their roles.
If nothing else, West of Zanzibar proves (yet again) that silent horror is by no means tame; Browning pushes buttons and tests limits in ways that no horror director of the 40s or 50s could. It suffers from the usual limitations of its era, especially where racist, colonialist attitudes are concerned, and it exploits the sexual degradation of its main female character in deeply uncomfortable ways. It might be preferable to start with other Chaney films if you aren't already well versed in his work or silent movies in general; try The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), or The Unknown (1927). For some of Browning's more controversial work, see Freaks (1932), or try his very weird collaboration with star Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1932), in which Barrymore plays the man obsessed with revenge. Browning and Barrymore also team up for The Show (1927). For a different look at Warner Baxter, try The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Monday, July 24, 2017
Stanwyck plays Sally, who becomes the second wife of painter Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) after his first wife dies. Sally doesn't suspect that her predecessor's demise was murder, and Geoffrey goes to great lengths to hide his crimes even as he contemplates a second disposal to make way for wife number three. Goaded by the offers of the beautiful Cecily (Alexis Smith), Geoffrey intends to make Sally another victim of his maniacal need for a new muse to drive his work. Geoffrey's young daughter, Bea (Ann Carter), eventually reveals some of his secrets, and Sally realizes the truth about her husband, but her revelation might come too late to save her from his murderous schemes.
The two leads are the chief attraction here, though both are somewhat out of their element. Humphrey Bogart never looks like an artist, but he does make for a credible killer, and it's great fun to watch his Geoffrey come unhinged whenever his secrets are threatened. By the end of the film he has gone right off the rails, justifying his actions with a horrifically sexist assertion that his art is more important than any woman's life. The simmering intensity that Bogart exemplifies works well for dangerous, unstable characters, and his performance here provides a parallel to his more celebrated work in The Petrified Forest (1936), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Stanwyck, normally a tough cookie and occasionally up for murder herself, here has an ingenue's role, and one of the film's frustrations is that we expect a Stanwyck character to be smarter. Stanwyck plays Sally as loyal, kind, and unsuspecting, which is what the role seems to demand of her, but it's not as good a part as the actress deserves, and Alexis Smith has the meatier role as the scheming Cecily. Stanwyck would get a much better chance to play an imperiled wife in the 1948 film, Sorry, Wrong Number, showing what she could do with a part more suited to her talent.
While the casting issues cause some obvious problems, the chief complaint about The Two Mrs. Carrolls is its inability to generate suspense. The film shows us up front that Geoffrey murders his first wife, creating dramatic irony for the audience as we wait for Sally to catch up. This approach can work well in a narrative, depending on how the unfolding events are handled as the protagonist learns the truth, but Sally stays in the dark so long that we wonder if she's paying attention. When she does finally figure it out there's a flood of information dumped into the last act so rapidly that we don't have time to savor Sally's discoveries. Even the reveal of the gruesome portrait of Sally as an Angel of Death - which ought to be a major moment - seems rushed. We see it briefly and then it's gone as Sally rushes on to the next piece of evidence. Great Gothic thrillers, whether literary or cinematic, use the slow build of rising suspicion and horror to drive the plot and the heroine forward to the inevitable confrontation with the villain. One has only to compare this movie's poisoned milk scenes with the one in Suspicion (1941) to see how differently a really suspenseful film handles the same concept. The 1940s, in fact, saw a host of excellent Gothic thrillers appear in the wake of Rebecca (1940) and the Jane Eyre inspired boom that followed, and it's a shame that The Two Mrs. Carrolls falls short in comparison with its sister films.
In spite of its failures, classic movie buffs will want to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls because it's the only picture to pair Bogart and Stanwyck. It's also worth seeing for fans of Ann Carter, the child star who so memorably plays the young protagonist of The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Peter Godfrey directs Alexis Smith again in The Woman in White (1948), which continues the Gothic trend, as does Cry Wolf (1947), which has Godfrey directing again for Stanwyck. For more of Smith and Bogart in a tale of murderous marriage, try Conflict (1945). Most of the Warner Bros. films are available as DVD on demand from the Warner Archive, including The Two Mrs. Carrolls.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Clash of the Titans (1981)
This is the first movie I distinctly remember seeing for the first time, at a drive-in in Jesup, GA, in 1981. Given my long-standing love for SF/F and special effects, it's no shock that I loved it. It also stirred my interest in mythology, which fueled a passion for all things literary.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
All seen in 1988 at the Governor's Honors Program in Valdosta, GA (see my post about that)
At a fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1989 - the brothers were drunk, but I was sober, and I got so sucked into watching the movie that I paid no attention to the shenanigans going on around me, much to the disappointment of the guy who hoped I'd be scared by the film and need his manly protection. I think he left when I started laughing at the death scenes. (No, I don't remember now why I thought they were funny!)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
At an NC-17 film series at Emory University in late January 1991, with the man I would eventually marry. Oddly enough, this series formed the basis of most of our first week of dating, an odd start in terms of content but fitting given how many movies we have seen together since. Of the two, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover made by far the greatest impression. I can still close my eyes and see whole scenes of that film, though I have not watched it again in all these years. The ending in particular is impossible to forget. This was my first real exposure to foreign films as such, not to mention NC-17 films. I went back to Emory's little theater for a Star Trek marathon, Prospero's Books (1991), and My Own Private Idaho (1991) during my college years, all memorable in their own ways.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Talk about a weird double feature! I saw both with a large group of friends from Agnes Scott and Emory. We all went to an Atlanta theater for Silence of the Lambs, which left us feeling freaked out by the time it got over. Luckily, we came out of the theater to find a floor show of Rocky Horror recruiting an audience for their midnight screening. It turned out that Frank-N-Furter was a high school friend of some of our folks, and we all got in for free. Silence is the better movie, but Rocky Horror was more fun; it was the first time I saw the live show.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Another group trip with a different crowd of friends - this one involved a pickup truck full of freezing college students at a drive-in theater outside Atlanta. I don't know why we thought it was a good idea to sit in the back of a truck on a freakishly cold night, but nobody lost any toes. I had to watch the movie again a few years later because I was too cold to pay that much attention to it at the time, but I'll never forget the experience itself.
Easter Parade (1948)
Most of these entries have been movies that were new at the time, but I got to discover this charming musical as part of a senior colloquium on comedy in 1992. The professor who showed it was Pat Pinka, and she was obviously delighted to present it to a room full of English majors. We studied many excellent works during this seminar course, including Swift's "Modest Proposal" and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but Easter Parade stands out as an example of the pure joy of a different kind of comedy.
Most of this list comes from my college years, a formative time, I think, for most young people, but for me especially because the town where I grew up had limited my access to so much of art and popular culture. I was lucky to get away to Atlanta and liberal arts campuses where I could explore literature, film, and my own identity. I went to museums, live theater, the ballet, and pretty much every movie theater in the greater metro area. So many of those movie experiences were memorable because it was all so new to me; even having friends with whom to see those movies was new. Now I see movies in the theater with my family all the time, but I also get to show movies to groups at libraries and lifetime learning programs, and I think the communal experience of watching and talking about a film makes a big difference.
I also talk about seeing some of these films for the first time in this post, so head over to that if you're interested in the portrait of the cinephile as a young girl theme.
What are the movies you remember seeing for the first time? Where were you and who were you with? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
I was spending the summer studying Communication Arts at the Governors Honors Program, a free camp that sent qualifying Georgia high school students for six weeks of academic opportunity at the Valdosta State campus. Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Valdosta and my dorm had no air conditioning, I was truly happy for the first time in my life. I was a lonely, bookish, skinny girl from a rural town in South Georgia. My conservative, religious parents controlled my life and frowned on my interest in becoming a writer or an artist while refusing to confront the causes of the deep depression that resulted from being trapped in such a situation. Getting away from them and out of town for the whole summer was a miracle in and of itself, but spending it with other nerdy, smart kids and having real friends for the first time while learning the most amazing stuff was almost too good to be true. I don't exaggerate when I say that Governor's Honors changed - and saved - my life.
In addition to days spent learning about literature from college professors (also my first time being around college professors!), we had a constant stream of bonus opportunities in the evenings and on weekends. One of my friends suggested that we attend a film series of social commentary shockers, and I went along, having no real concept of what that meant. I had not been allowed to see horror movies or R rated movies of any kind at home; we didn't have cable, and my parents exercised strict veto power over anything I tried to rent at the video store or see in the pitiful two screen theater downtown. During the film series we sat in desks in a dark, blessedly cool classroom, taking in these movies that I had never heard of before but would never forget seeing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was up first, horrifying us with its gruesome zombies but really punching us in the gut at the end. Next came One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); the discovery that frontal lobotomy was actually a thing that happened to people gave me nightmares for days. We finished up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was probably my favorite of the series if only because I was instantly charmed by Donald Sutherland, whom I had never seen before. Each picture shocked, terrified, and delighted me. It felt transgressive to be watching them, and I certainly didn't mention them to my parents.
The professor who showed the films introduced them and led discussions afterwards, something I often did as an English professor and still do today as a speaker at libraries, lifetime learning programs, and retirement communities. It made the movies so much more interesting to know something about them going in and have a lively conversation afterward. I don't remember if I contributed to the discussions back then; I was probably too ashamed of my own ignorance when many of the kids around me were obviously more schooled in the issues and the films. I remember a lot more about that series, though, than the Hitchcock screenings that ran in the student center, where we didn't have introductions or discussions. The academic, engaged approach made a big difference in the overall impact of the films.
|Comm Arts kids were called "Commies" - we got shirts! Yes, I kept mine.|
It's strange to look back thirty years later and realize that something so minor - just a few evenings of movie screenings, led by a knowledgeable person who thought kids should know something about film - would alter me in such an enduring way. I knew from the moment I arrived at Governor's Honors that it was the single best thing that had ever happened to me. It would go on changing my life in huge ways for the next several years, but I didn't suspect then that an introduction to George Romero's zombie classic would put me on a path to decades of passionate engagement with the art of cinema. Thanks, Mr. Romero, and thanks to that professor who wanted us to see those films. I'm trying to carry on the good work.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
|Errol Flynn is in the bedroom, of course.|
Unfortunately, the Jezebel and Adventures of Robin Hood posters I picked up are an odd size, so I never did find frames that were a perfect fit. I finally gave up and matted them, but I'll be giving that more thought if and when I manage another trip to L.A. I'm probably a little too old to just tape posters up like I did as a college student (back then my prize possession was a British quad poster for The Lost Boys). Besides, I don't want to damage them!
|Wonderground Gallery postcard prints|
For those who can't travel, there's always AllPosters.com, where I found some good deals on a couple of classic movie posters on my most recent visit. I'm not rich enough to shop at FilmPosters.com, but if anyone wants to buy me an original Curse of the Cat People poster for $2,750.00 I'll be glad to take it!
|Jezebel guards the jewelry box.|