Saturday, March 21, 2020

Classics for Coronavirus: Robinson Crusoe

The world is staying home this spring as a pandemic spreads through our countries, leaving many people to cope with the unfamiliar experience of social isolation. Literature and film are suddenly lifelines to adventure, community, and knowledge, and some of them can really teach us a few things about how to live while cut off from the rest of the world. As I keep up with the news this month I find myself thinking especially about Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's iconic castaway and master of social distancing. Defoe's original novel, published in 1719, has inspired many subsequent books, films, and television series, and there's never been a better excuse or time to explore them. Here are some of my favorite Robinson Crusoe revisions and adaptations.

1) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) - This is probably my favorite of the films inspired by the novel because it takes Defoe's story and mixes it into 60s sci-fi, Paul Mantee stars as the castaway astronaut on the red planet, but you'll also find Adam West in a supporting role early in the film. Try this one if you're already a fan of classic sci-fi or you really loved The Martian (2015)!

2) The Martian (2015) - Matt Damon's turn as a castaway astronaut on Mars isn't a direct adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, but it certainly owes a lot to Defoe, and it makes a perfect double feature with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. When he gets left behind on Mars, Mark Watney uses science and creativity to survive. You'll really learn to appreciate potatoes!

3) Cast Away (2000) - If you want to come back to earth for your isolation, try the Tom Hanks hit in which a FedEx employee survives a plane crash and is stranded on a remote island. This is very much a modern Crusoe tale, although Crusoe's eventual companion, Friday, is a lot more useful than the soccer ball that Hanks' character names Wilson. Hanks, of course, has been in the news recently after being diagnosed with COVID-19 while filming in Australia, but I hope his time in medical isolation was a lot less traumatic than being marooned on an uninhabited island!

4) Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Defoe's original story inspired the 1812 family classic, which is also worth handing to your kids while they're at home, but the 1960 Disney film adaptation is probably the best known of the numerous film treatments. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire star as the parents of a shipwrecked family with several sons, and this one makes a good family pick for kids who are too young for the films I've already listed. Best of all, you can stream it on Disney Plus if you're already sick of the two Frozen movies!

5) Lost in Space (1965-1968) - The Crusoe family tree adds another branch with this 60s TV revision of Swiss Family Robinson, which gave the world the iconic line, "Danger, Will Robinson!" Make your kids watch the 1960 Disney film first and then introduce the 60s TV series, the 1998 feature film version, or the newest 2018 TV series version (although the 1998 film is not particularly good, the new series is getting high marks).

Whether you're an adult looking for interesting ways to spend your time at home or a parent trying to craft educational but fun activities for kids, an exploration of Robinson Crusoe's literary and cinematic legacy is a timely choice. The original story is a good place to start if you have the patience for 18th century literature - it's a good read and a true classic with enormous influence. Otherwise try jumping in with any of the films and TV series listed here.


Friday, February 7, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943)

Old Acquaintance (1943) is primarily famous today for a scene in which Bette Davis violently shakes her off screen nemesis Miriam Hopkins and then offers a very insincere "sorry" to her victim, but if you watch the entire film you'll be completely on Bette's side about Miriam needing to be shaken. Directed by Vincent Sherman, this romantic melodrama stars the two feuding actresses as lifelong friends who weather ups and downs and disappointment together, but Miriam's character is just about the worst, most annoying frenemy a woman could imagine, leaving the viewer to praise Bette's heroine for just shaking her instead of opening up on her like Leslie Crosbie at the beginning of The Letter (1940). The picture is a compelling depiction of life with an emotional vampire, with a great performance from Davis and very solid support from John Loder, Gig Young, and Delores Moran, but Miriam Hopkins is the one you'll love to hate for her role as selfish, shallow, envious Millie Drake.

Davis plays up and coming novelist Kit Marlowe, who returns to her hometown at the beginning of the film and is reunited with her childhood friend, Millie (Miriam Hopkins). Jealous of Kit's success, Millie then becomes a writer of pulpy romances and enjoys immense wealth but still envies Kit's critical praise. As the years pass, Millie makes her husband, Preston (John Loder), miserable, and he yearns for a second chance at happiness with Kit, who also acts as a substitute mother for Millie's daughter, Deirdre (Dolores Moran). Kit is torn between her loyalty to Millie and her love for Preston, and her decision has lasting consequences for everyone involved.

Although she could play the diva as well as anyone, Davis is the straight arrow here, modest, loyal, practical, and self-sacrificing. Kit embodies the writer as a quiet intellectual, determined to make great art even if it only brings modest success. Millie, on the other hand, craves the limelight and the show of wealth; she churns out frothy popular romances like sausages, as one journalist (played by Anne Revere) accurately but too candidly observes. The public eats up Millie's romances, but Millie never outgrows her persistent jealousy of Kit. Hopkins chews the scenery with her tantrums and hysterics while everyone else has to react to them and attempt to placate Millie, who manages to make other people apologize for her bad behavior. The film wants us to accept that this friendship is important enough for Davis' Kit to make huge sacrifices to maintain, but modern audiences might be too keenly aware of the danger signs of unhealthy relationships to think either Kit or Preston should put up with Millie's emotional blackmail and constant theatrics.

Like numerous other romantic melodramas of this era, Old Acquaintance takes place over several decades and offers us scenes from different key points in the characters' lives. I admit to being a sucker for this kind of story because I love to see the ways in which the costumes, makeup, and lighting try to make young girls out of grown women and then continue on to show them as they grow old. Davis moves from a college girl's suit and energy at the opening to a matronly World War II uniform and a prominent gray streak in her hair near the end, while Hopkins' Millie never gives up her preference for showy, floating confections no matter how old she gets. The decades offer us an opportunity to contemplate what changes and what remains constant in the characters' lives, and for the two leads the passage of time is more distinctly emphasized by the growth of baby Deirdre into a young woman with romantic aspirations and frustrations of her own. Kit in particular is forced to think about herself in contrast with Deirdre when she finds out that Deirdre is in love with Kit's much younger boyfriend, Rudd (Gig Young). The situation puts Kit on the spot once again as she has to choose whether to fight for her own happiness or prioritize her loyalty to another woman.

If you enjoy the pairing of the two rivals, be sure to watch The Old Maid (1939), which also stars Davis and Hopkins as women tied together by jealousy and love. For more decades spanning stories with Bette Davis, see Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Payment on Demand (1951). Miriam Hopkins also stars in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), and Becky Sharp (1935), the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

See also: In Praise of Women's Pictures

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Reasons to Keep a Movie Log

A page from my movie log
Do you keep a record of the movies you watch? Should you? A movie log is a great way to keep track of your viewing over time, and it can be a helpful memory jogger when you're trying to think about which Oscar contenders you saw as soon as they came out and what year you finally discovered that overlooked gem that became a personal favorite. You can make a log as detailed or as basic as you like, but I think even a simple record has real benefits for the serious cinephile.

I have kept a simple movie log since June 2009, when I first started with a small ringbound journal. I'm still using that journal more than a decade later because I only list the year and month, the name of each film, and the release date of the film. When I first started the log I tried to be more detailed and include a mini review with a star rating, but I quickly realized that I was more likely to keep the log current if I just stuck to the basic information. I was watching a lot of movies each month back then (27 in August 2010!) because I was getting paid to write frequent columns for the now defunct Examiner.com and was still discovering a lot of classics for the first time thanks to the internet, Netflix DVD rentals, and more time at my disposal.

There are several websites you can use to keep a movie log if you are so inclined, including Letterboxd, but personally I prefer the old school paper journal because I like being able to flip through the pages and make notes in the margins when necessary. The written journal feels more intimate, and I can see at a glance if I got hooked on a particular star in April 2012 (Henry Fonda) or became obsessed with a series in November 2016 (I watch Star Trek and Star Wars when I'm depressed or anxious, and I watched A LOT of Star Trek in November 2016).

At the end of each year I can easily tally the total number of films I watched and note which ones I saw both in the theater and at home when they came out on disc or streaming. I could also break down my viewing by month and see which months are my busiest for movie watching, although I know it's generally around Halloween, when I watch a lot of classic horror favorites, and Christmas, when I have must-see holiday traditions and more time with the family at home to watch new movies together. I don't keep track of TV series episodes, just feature length films and shorts where relevant, but you could certainly include those in your own list if you want to be thorough.

Here's the record for January 2020:

The Black Cauldron (1985)
But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Bombhsell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2015)
Troop Zero (2019)
MIB International (2019)
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Master of Dark Shadows (2019)
Payment on Demand (1951)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Old Acquaintance (1943)

It's very simple and straightforward, but the list gives me plenty of information about my general viewing activity for the month, and the minimal record is enough to jog my memory later if I need to think about the films. You can also see blog posts summarizing my movie log for a full year, if you want to see a complete list:

2019 Movie Log in Review
2018 Movie Log in Review
Film Log for 2017

If you aren't already keeping a movie log, I do recommend giving it a try, whether it's on Letterboxd, in a document on your computer, or in a notebook. If you do keep a log, I'd love to know what information you include and what you learn about yourself and your habits by keeping track!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Cozy Up with Acorn TV

When I'm not watching movies, there's a 90% chance that I'm watching a cozy murder mystery. I'm obsessed with them; I read a lot of cozy mystery series and enjoy them, but I love seeing the characters and stories embodied in television series. For the most part, the murder mysteries that I like best hail from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. I'm not a fan of dark police procedurals or crime shows "ripped from the headlines." I want a cast of quirky, interesting characters, a distinctive and detailed sense of place, and an unusual murder (or three) for the audience to solve along with the detectives. Thankfully, the streaming service Acorn TV dishes up a wide variety of cozy mystery series from several different countries.

UK offerings include the venerable and beloved Midsomer Murders and the adorably quirky Agatha Raisin. I've watched every episode of Midsomer so far, but if you're new to it you've got enough entertainment ahead to last most of 2020. The show is famed for its dry sense of humor and hilariously dreadful murder methods (hint: never go on holiday in Badger's Drift!). Agatha Raisin has a delightful Scooby gang vibe with middle aged romance added to the mix; the relationships between characters on the show are dynamic and interesting without being maudlin. With only one season so far, Queens of Mystery is a newcomer that started very strong and has lots of room for future development, and its particularly knowing treatment of the genre is great fun for cozy fans. The British fare also includes a solid collection of Agatha Christie adaptations, especially the excellent Agatha Christie's Marple, featuring first Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie as the iconic sleuth.

Australia is ably represented by Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, starring the fabulous Essie Davis as a 1920s private detective who lives and loves with equal abandon. Adapted from a wildly popular book series (I've read them all, and they're terrific), the Miss Fisher series is currently getting a second life with a feature film sequel that should appear on Acorn later in 2020. A spin-off, called Miss Fisher's Modern Mysteries, is also available on Acorn, with Geraldine Hakewell as a relative of the original Miss Fisher living in the 1960s. I enjoyed the spin-off but wasn't quite as enchanted by it as the original show, perhaps because the four episode series had less time to develop all of the interesting supporting characters. If you're looking for a particularly funny Australian murder series, Acorn also offers all 13 episodes of the tragically short-lived Mr. and Mrs. Murder, in which married crime scene cleaners solve murders and get entangled in ridiculous situations along the way.

My last recommendation hales from New Zealand, where police detective Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) solves murders in The Brokenwood Mysteries. Great leads, lots of fun recurring characters, and gorgeous scenery make this series one of my current favorites, with new episodes dropping on Acorn each week as the latest season is released. The show has a surprisingly strong first episode that hooks the viewer immediately, and later seasons build on that solid foundation. If you've exhausted Midsomer Murders and want something with the same mix of dry humor, murder, and detective work, this New Zealand show is the perfect choice.

Acorn TV has dozens of mystery series and other programming to choose from, but these are the shows I have especially enjoyed since I first subscribed to the streaming service in 2019. With new shows and seasons regularly appearing, Acorn has been well worth the cost of $6 a month or $60 a year. Do check it out if you're looking for great cozy mysteries to keep you warm through the winter!


Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Acorn TV and received no payment of any kind for this post.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)

Marilyn Monroe became a true star thanks to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the Howard Hawks directed adaptation of the Broadway musical hit in which Carol Channing had originated the role of Lorelei Lee. Monroe's take on "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" remains one of her most memorable moments, with numerous imitations, homages, and parodies, but the best way to appreciate the number is to see the whole film, in which Monroe and costar Jane Russell light up the screen as a pair of entertainers on a cruise ship full of attentive men. Notable costars include Tommy Noonan, Charles Coburn, and Elliott Reid, although child actor George Winslow proves the scene stealer of the lot as the youngest of Lorelei's admirers.

Monroe plays Lorelei Lee, a gorgeous opportunist who "can be smart when it's important" but knows that rich men aren't looking for intellectual genius in a bride. When her besotted millionaire boyfriend (Tommy Noonan) proposes, his father tries to break up the match by hiring a private detective (Elliott Reid) to keep tabs on Lorelei as she and her friend, Dorothy (Jane Russell) sail to France. On the ship Dorothy falls for the charms of the detective, while Lorelei falls for the diamonds of "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn), an elderly wolf with an appetite for Lorelei's assets.

Lorelei is definitely ditzy, but Monroe invests her with sweetness and vitality in addition to mercenary instincts, and Russell makes a great "smart cookie" counterpart. Their musical numbers together are lots of fun, even if Monroe's big solo proves the real showstopper of the picture. Russell's solo, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love," is also a highlight, thanks mostly to Russell's lusty, winking performance but also partly the spectacle of exposed man flesh gyrating, flexing, and thrusting all around her. Russell has another big moment when Dorothy impersonates Lorelei in a French courtroom and derails the proceedings with her own rendition of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," the funniest part being her imitation of Lorelei's mannerisms and conniving but clueless behavior. All of the male actors provide solid support, with Tommy Noonan swooning at Lorelei's kisses and Charles Coburn constantly on the run from his overbearing wife, but the movie belongs to Monroe and Russell just like every room belongs to Lorelei and Dorothy the minute they enter it.

The persistent question that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seems to be asking is whether a gold digger can still be a good woman, to which Dorothy and Lorelei emphatically say yes in spite of Lorelei's obsession with wealth and dalliance with Piggy. (It's the same question that How to Marry a Millionaire also asks, although Monroe's character in that picture is much less devoted to money than Lorelei). Dorothy has no interest in rich men, and even rejects the detective, Ernie, when she thinks he's a wealthy playboy, but she doesn't hold Lorelei's materialism against her. Lorelei argues that having money is the only way to ensure a happy marriage, and she even compares a man's wealth to a woman's beauty as equally valid requirements for a union.The "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number might overstate the case, but Lorelei has a point about money being the root of much marital unhappiness, and in a time when women were expected to be financially dependent on their husbands it was definitely better to marry a good provider than endure poverty yoked to a bad one. Lorelei, after all, isn't making any calculation that generations of careful mothers and ambitious debutantes hadn't been making for centuries before her, she's just more willing to admit that the cash and the jewels are the big attraction.

For a look at Marilyn's earlier roles, see The Asphalt Jungle (1950), All About Eve (1950), and Monkey Business (1952), the last of which Hawks also directed. Charles Coburn has particularly memorable roles in Bachelor Mother (1939), The Lady Eve (1941), and The More the Merrier (1943), and he also appears in Monkey Business with Monroe. Catch Jane Russell in The Outlaw (1943), The Paleface (1948), and His Kind of Woman (1951), as well as the sequel Son of Paleface (1952). In 1955, Russell starred Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, but the title is the only connection to the original film, and Russell plays a completely different character in the later story.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ida Lupino and THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Ida Lupino is not as familiar today as screen icons like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but classic film fans know and love her work as both an actress and one of the few women directors working in Hollywood during the mid 20th century. If you're not familiar with Lupino in either capacity, you can get a quick introduction to her work thanks to The Twilight Zone, which features one episode in which Lupino is the star and one that she directs. Both are worthwhile episodes of the show, with Lupino proving that she had just as much to offer behind the camera as in front of it. Early 2020 is a particularly good time to see these Twilight Zone episodes because you can currently find four seasons of the series streaming on Netflix.

Ida Lupino started out as a young actress in England and then made her way to Hollywood, where she enjoyed her greatest success as a performer in films like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Her acting career tends to overshadow her directorial work, partly because it was so difficult for women to succeed as directors during the studio era, but Lupino had better success directing episodes of television series. According to IMDB, Lupino achieved 106 screen acting appearances and 41 credits as a director, including eight episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel, five of General Electric Theater, and nine of Thriller. Although she worked on only two episodes, The Twilight Zone is an especially good introduction to Lupino because you can see her work on both sides of the camera with just a Netflix account and about 45 minutes of free time.


The first episode, "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" from Season One, features Lupino as the protagonist, a middle-aged movie queen named Barbara Jean Trenton. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950), Barbara is a difficult woman unwilling to confront reality and obsessed with her own films, but unlike Norma Barbara actually manages to escape from that ugly reality by entering the world of the pictures flickering on the screen. The expected twist of the story occurs quite late, and since Barbara's wish gets fulfilled without ironic subversion it's not one of the show's more famous episodes. Lupino, however, looks great in it and gives a very solid performance playing a character type she certainly knew in real life. (For more Twilight Zone actress stories, see "Ring-a-Ding Girl" and "Queen of the Nile," both of which are also in the Netflix collection.)


The second episode, "The Masks" from Season Five, shows Lupino's skill as a director. The story focuses on a dying old man who gets revenge against his greedy, awful relatives on the night of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In order to get their expected inheritance, the relatives are required to wear hideous masks until midnight, at which point the old man dies and they discover that their true selves have been revealed. As the director, Lupino does a wonderful job conveying the shallow selfishness of the relatives and their growing horror as they finally remove their masks. The camera frequently focuses on the faces of the relatives in close-up; we see the ugly masks with their frozen mouths, but we also see the increasingly anxious eyes of the wearers. Vulture lists "The Masks" as #18 in its top 50 Twilight Zone episodes, and Rolling Stone puts it at #25 on their best-of list, making it an episode any fan of the classic series should definitely see.

If you watch and enjoy these two episodes of The Twilight Zone, track down some of Lupino's other work. In addition to the films mentioned before, you can find her acting in Moontide (1942), The Man I Love (1946), and Road House (1948). The Trouble with Angels (1966) is probably the most available of the films Lupino directed, but she both directed and stars in The Bigamist (1953), and her other directorial efforts include Not Wanted (1949), Never Fear (1950), and The Hitch-Hiker (1953).



Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Movie Log in Review

2019 was a year for big changes. My only child turned 18, finished high school, and headed off to college, a process that took up much of my mental energy as we finished our last year together. We moved to a new house in a new neighborhood and added a new kitten to our house cat collection. The disappearance of classic movie streaming services and classic offerings on the mainstream services meant that I had to work harder to watch old movies I hadn't seen before, which means I saw fewer old movies this year and was more likely to watch things I owned on physical media and had seen before. With our move accomplished and my new nest empty except for cats, I hope that 2020 will bring more time and bandwidth for classic films and blogging. I'm not making any resolutions, mind you!

Happy New Year to everyone who keeps up with me here at Virtual Virago. Here's the 2019 Movie Log of every feature film I watched this past year.

January
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)
That Night in Rio (1941)

February
Tower of London (1939)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Dark Waters (1944)
9 to 5 (1980)
The Harvey Girls (1946)

March
Dragonwyck (1946)
Captain Marvel (2019)
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Dumplin' (2018)
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
On the Town (1949)

April
House of Wax (1953)
Shazam! (2019)
Death at a Funeral (2007)

May
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Spirited Away (2001)
The Cat Returns (2002)
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Detective Pikachu (2019)
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Rim of the World (2019)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

June
Rocketman (2019)
Toy Story 4 (2019)
Casanova Brown (1944)

July
Merry Maids of Madness (2016)
Spiderman: Far From Home (2019)
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
The Vault of Horror (1973)

August
Shazam! (2019)
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
The Witches (1990)
Addams Family Values (1993)
Muppets from Space (1999)
The Last Unicorn (1982)
Airplane! (1980)

September
The Old Dark House (1932)
A Bump Along the Way (2019) - My first film at TIFF!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Thor: Ragnarok (2018)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

October
National Velvet (1944)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
We Have Always Lived at the Castle (2018)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Dolemite is My Name (2019)

November
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Let It Snow (2019)
Charlie's Angels (2019)
JoJo Rabbit (2019)
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
Love, Actually (2003)
Klaus (2019)

December
Knives Out (2019)
Die Hard (1988)
I Lost My Body (2019)
The Court Jester (1955)
Bundle of Joy (1956)
Noelle (2019)
White Christmas (1956)
Frozen 2 (2019)
Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
The Muppet  Christmas Carol (1992)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Scrooged (1988)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Little Women (2019)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

That's a total of just 80 movies this year, probably my lowest annual number since I started keeping a movie log in June of 2009! 15 of those were new films seen in theaters, not including new films seen on streaming services like Netflix. Hopefully I can get back up above 100 in 2020, but I will probably have to commit to buying more classic movies on DVD in order to do that. We already have more streaming services than I want to pay for, but not one has the classic movie content I want to watch (my current favorite streaming service is AcornTV, which specializes in British and Australian programming and has lots of cozy murder mystery shows that I love).

What did you watch in 2019? What are your movie resolutions for 2020? Let me know in the comments!