Monday, July 20, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: MADAM SATAN (1930)

Cecil B. DeMille's 1930 musical extravaganza is hard to classify in terms of genre and even harder to describe in terms of sheer spectacular weirdness, but Madam Satan is one of those Pre-Code pictures you really need to see for yourself in order to appreciate the extent to which it revels in a "more is more" approach to cinema. Slow and creaky at times, especially in the early stages, it switches into high gear for a third act that more than makes up for its flaws, with a wild costume party aboard a floating Zeppelin and a full throttle descent into passion, chaos, and disaster. It's not the pinnacle of DeMille's oeuvre, but it certainly showcases the director's taste for excess, and Kay Johnson is a delight once she abandons her role as martyred wife to become the titular - and titillating - Madam Satan.

Johnson plays the much put upon Angela Brooks, a loyal and respectable wife to the wealthy but utterly unreliable Bob (Reginald Denny). Angela turns a blind eye to most of Bob's failings, but when she discovers his infidelity with the gold-digging Trixie (Lillian Roth) she decides first to leave him and then to fight to get him back. Angela uses a lavish costume party thrown by their friend Jimmy (Roland Young) as an opportunity to disguise herself as the worldly and seductive Madam Satan in order to lure Bob back into her arms. Fate, however, has a shock in store, as a violent storm pitches the Zeppelin and its occupants into peril.

We should probably agree up front not to take marital advice from 1930s Hollywood, which tends to advise injured wives to ignore spousal cheating and blame themselves for male infidelity. Madam Satan is squarely in this camp, with Angela accused of causing Bob to stray by acting like an adult in a serious relationship. To a modern viewer it's clearly Bob who ought to change his irresponsible party boy behavior, and I admit to being a little disappointed that Angela doesn't shoot him or push him out of the collapsing Zeppelin (who would have known? It would have been the perfect murder!). It's a mystery to me why she wants him back at all, but that's the goal that drives the rest of the picture, with the literally angelic wife, Angela - get it? - having to become a sexy devil in order to coax her wayward husband back into the marital fold.

As tiresome as that sexist ideology is, Angela does become a lot more entertaining when she stops crying over her idiot spouse and shows up at the Zeppelin shindig ready to gyrate her way into his heart, if his heart is actually involved in this scenario at all. The picture is loaded with innuendo and double entendre to remind us which of Bob's organs Angela is really supposed to capture. The costume party, which is basically an orgy of excess, is a perfect setting for this effort, with scantily clad women, leering men, an auction of sexy ladies, and a bizarre musical number about electricity that might be the result if Tesla had directed porn. Johnson really revels in the Madam Satan persona, and she and Lillian Roth engage in such spirited combat that the male actors just fade into the background. It's a shame, really, when Angela reveals her identity to Bob and goes back to being the love starved wife desperate for attention from a man who doesn't deserve her, but the ending suggests that a bit of the devil in Angela has come to stay.

For a comparison of Madam Satan with DeMille's other work in the early 1930s, see The Sign of the Cross (1932), or go straight to The Ten Commandments (1956) for his final towering achievement. You'll find Kay Johnson in Thirteen Women (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), and Son of Fury (1942), while Reginald Denny, whose film career began in 1915, also appears in Of Human Bondage as well as Romeo and Juliet (1936), Rebecca (1940), and a number of the Bulldog Drummond films as Algy Longworth. Look for Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers (1930) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), but be sure to take note of I'll Cry Tomorrow, the 1955 biopic starring Susan Hayward that chronicles Roth's struggles with alcoholism. Roland Young is probably best remembered for the title role in the Topper films, but he's also very funny as Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Night of the Living (LEGO) Dead!

We're still in the grip of this endless pandemic, so I've been spending a lot of my time with my massive LEGO collection, where my love for classic horror movies often provides inspiration. Here's a zombie horde that would make George A. Romero happy! The zombie cheerleader is one of my all-time favorite LEGO figures.

If our real world viral catastrophe has you bored and stuck at home this summer, escape to the gruesome fun of classic zombie movies like White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), or Night of the Living Dead (1968). Masks won't help, but you'll definitely want to keep at least six feet between you and the walking dead!

They're dead, they're underfed, and they're looking for tiny plastic brains.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: MARTY (1955)

Somehow I've managed to miss seeing Marty (1955) in my classic movie viewing up until this month, when I happened to find it hidden in the depths of the Prime streaming catalog on Amazon. I'm glad I finally discovered it, though, because this modest romantic drama is as sweet and compelling a picture as one could possibly want in troubled times. At only 90 minutes long, it's the shortest movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it packs those minutes with feeling in its story about a lonely butcher (Ernest Borgnine) who finds a chance at love with a shy teacher (Betsy Blair) who has also been unlucky at romance. Directed by Delbert Mann, this low-budget gem collected eight Oscar nominations and won four, with Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay in addition to the Best Picture win.

Borgnine takes the title role as Marty, a 34 year old butcher in New York whose numerous siblings have all already married and started families. Marty's old-school Italian mother (Esther Minciotti) harangues him about finding a wife of his own, but Marty's friends are only interested in conventionally attractive women who won't give Marty the time of day. Depressed about the prospect of living the rest of his life alone, Marty nonetheless ventures out to a ballroom with his friend, Angie (Joe Mantell), where he sees a heartless date ditch plain Clara (Blair) after judging her to be a "dog." Marty steps in with sympathy, and a romance blossoms between the two, but Marty's friends and family prove to be less excited about his choice than he might have expected.

With its humdrum middle class working world and plain protagonists, Marty is a welcome antidote to swoony romances of impossibly beautiful people meeting on elegant transcontinental cruises or in the streets of Paris. It doesn't try to throw a veneer of glamor over its situations or its characters, but it does examine the unrealistic ideals that both men and women, but women especially, are held to in order to be deemed worthy of love. Marty's friends are constantly leering at girlie magazines and talking about the "dames" who appear in Mickey Spillane novels, and it's clear that they have internalized the messages from those mediums. Marty might also have been looking for love in the wrong places by following their lead, and when he finds a kind, smart young woman who takes an interest in him, both his friends and even his mother are quick to criticize her for not being beautiful. Marty has to push back against that criticism and recognize the value of the opportunity that Clara represents or else risk losing it forever.

The performances by Borgnine and Blair draw us into sympathy with each of them and suggest a lot more than they actually show, which makes the short movie equal far more than the sum of its minutes. When Clara reacts negatively to Marty's awkward play for a kiss, we understand intuitively that she's frightened because she has probably never been kissed before, while Marty - still struggling with the old, bad examples that have been presented to him - opts for ardent aggression when gentleness is required. As newcomers to romance they have to stumble through their mistakes and doubts toward one another, but it's delightful to see them open up, laugh, and connect over their long first night together as they wander from place to place. Neither of them is beautiful in the classic sense, but their yearning toward one another is exquisitely so, with Clara's silent tears near the end as moving and heartbreaking as any you'll see on film.

Marty originally aired as a 1953 televised play starring Rod Steiger in the lead; online and DVD versions of that production are available if you want to compare the two. The big screen remake was the first film for director Delbert Mann, whose later work includes Desire Under the Elms (1958), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Fitzwilly (1967). Ernest Borgnine, who continued working right up until his death in 2012, can be found in films and TV series all over the place, including Johnny Guitar (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), McHale's Navy (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Escape from New York (1981). Look for Betsy Blair in Another Part of the Forest (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948); her career stalled after she was blacklisted, but she got the role in Marty thanks to the demands of her husband at the time, Gene Kelly, who was able to insist that the studio use her.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

CMBA Spring Blogathon: Classics for Comfort

The Classic Movie Blog Association is holding its Spring Blogathon this week, and the theme is Classics for Comfort, which we could all use right now! CMBA members are posting their "Top 5" comforting classics, which means we'll probably be picking a lot of comedies and musicals, but I'm excited to see what everyone else picks. As for me, I have definitely been going back to my comfort zone for movies since the pandemic sent us all into crisis mode back in March. I don't want to watch anything that makes me more anxious than I already feel, but my comfort zone encompasses both classic musicals and comedies, classic Disney films, and fair bit of science fiction (especially Star Trek - I have watched SO MUCH Star Trek lately because it always gives me hope for humanity's future). In keeping with the CMBA theme, here are my top five go-to classic movies for trying times, presented in chronological order because I really don't want to try to rank these favorites!


I absolutely adore everything about this wacky screwball comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I've seen it many, many times, and it still makes me laugh, even though I can recite almost all of the dialogue from memory. I love life-affirming, joyful comedy, which means the screwball genre is far and away my favorite, but this one holds a special place in my heart for being my childhood introduction to Katharine Hepburn. Hilarious physical comedy and outstanding supporting players keep the laughs coming from beginning to end. I especially love to show this one to kids because the leopards and the dog are chaos agents that really young viewers can appreciate, even if they don't grasp the romantic themes.


Errol Flynn's swashbuckling classic is another great choice for kids, but it holds plenty of charm for adults, too. The gorgeous Technicolor cinematography carries me away to Sherwood Forest, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score is absolutely perfect. I love its stars and its supporting cast, especially the delightful chemistry between Flynn and Alan Hale and the hilarious character comedy of Una O'Connor and Eugene Pallette, but Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone are also brilliant as the bad guys. Although many other Robin Hood films have been made, this one is the cornucopia of delights that I love best, and if you haven't shown it to your kids you should put that one your to-do list right now.


I'm sure this iconic musical will turn up on a lot of the CMBA bloggers' lists, but I have to include it here for the sheer joy it always fills me with when I watch it. My kid was a huge Gene Kelly fan when she was little, and this was her favorite movie, so much so that she sometimes ran around the house impersonating Lina Lamont. Debbie Reynolds' energy and pep are irresistible, and you just have to grin watching Kelly and Donald O'Connor dance. I'm a big fan of the colorful, upbeat musicals of the 40s and 50s in general, but this one brings the perfect cast together in such a blitz of wonderful numbers and hilarious comedy that it definitely deserves its place in movie fans' hearts. Once again, this is a great classic movie to show kids; just be prepared for the Lina Lamont impressions and tap dancing likely to ensue!


I'm not much of a Disney princess fan, although I love the gorgeous animation of Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I'm much more enamored of Disney's classic animal tales, and Lady and the Tramp is the one I especially love to go back to for its sweet, soulful depiction of a dog's life. The charming setting, the lovely animation, and the wonderful voice performances all delight me with each new viewing. I find most of Disney's classic animal movies comforting because I loved them as a kid and then loved watching them with my kid, but this one remains a favorite with both of us, and we almost always watch it when one of us is sick and needs something familiar and cheerful to watch while convalescing on the couch.


I realize I'm skirting the definition of "classic" for some people, but the original Star Wars trilogy holds a deep and special place in my heart, and I will almost always go back and watch A New Hope again when I need a serious morale boost. Just a few bars of John Williams' powerful score can send me into a reverie of memories and feelings about a galaxy far, far away. The movie itself is full of hope and courage and self-sacrifice, but it also connects me with my younger self, the lonely, hopeful farm kid I used to be, who also dreamed of escape and a different life. I return to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo as old friends, familiar if frozen in time on the screen, and the sorrows of the time that has passed (how we miss you, Carrie Fisher) make the experience sweeter still.

 I guess from this list you could probably deduce that I take a lot of comfort in music, color, adventure, and happy endings if not outright comedy. For comfort I gravitate toward movies that are gentle enough to watch with the family but exciting enough to keep the plot rolling, and romance is a welcome part of the equation as long as the heroines are plucky. These are all movies that make me feel happy when I watch them; they remind me that joy, friendship, laughter, and courage all exist in the world even when things look bleak. I'm sure my fellow CMBA bloggers will have lots of interesting choices on their lists if my five picks aren't your cup of tea, so make certain you check out the rest of the blogathon posts!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Following Along with Film and Narrative

I haven't posted a classic movie review here in several weeks because the pandemic means that my movie watching is more a group activity than my choice alone. Normally I have Monday nights to myself to watch old movies and weeks together when the spouse is away on work travel, but right now we're all at home and trying to make the most of family time! That means a lot of more recent movies that appeal to the spouse and kid and fewer films that make good blog posts for Virtual Virago. We are, however, watching movies together, especially because one of the kid's classes this term is Film and Narrative, with a different movie assignment each week. Watching a college student work through someone else's course has been really interesting to me as a former college professor, and I've enjoyed - but sometimes really questioned - the choices for this film course.

We've watched Hot Fuzz (2007), Smoke Signals (1998), Jaws (1975), Rashomon (1950), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) together as part of the kid's film course, with the last one being the only odd choice of that lot. Sure, it's got the whole non-linear, time looping story line set against a sci-fi version of the Normandy invasion, but it's still a Tom Cruise movie and not the most original or provocative example one might have chosen. The spouse and I had seen all of these films before, of course, but they were all new to the kid, who really liked Smoke Signals and Jaws but was wishing the syllabus had more comedy to balance to out the drama and action.

The professor had the students pick a final film on their own, preferably something outside their "comfort zone," and the kid asked me to suggest some comedies for the assignment. Off to the DVD closet we went! We ended up watching The Women (1939), which was a huge hit thanks to the gleefully awful performances of Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. It definitely provided something different from the films on the syllabus, and it gave the kid plenty to write about for the assignment. Sadly, we're now at the end of the semester, so we don't have any more movies to watch for the course.

Following along with the kid's film class got me thinking about what movies I would put on a syllabus for a similar course. This happens to be the second college film and narrative class the kid has taken; the first was as a dual enrollment student at the local university. The first class provided the students with a list to choose from for each unit, which I think worked better and created a lot more opportunity to delve into different interests, while this second class only had the one open option and all the rest assigned (which they normally watched in class as a group). I wonder if a film and narrative class works better if it sticks to a theme as opposed to being a little of this and a little of that, all over the cinematic map, but I realize it's an introductory level course and not a special topics section.

The kid's most recent class watched:

The Cameraman (1928)
 Cat People (1942)
 Batman Returns (1992)
Hero (2002)
The Way Way Back (2013)
Creed (2015)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Smoke Signals (1998)
Jaws (1975)
Rashomon (1950)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
(WALL-E from 2008 was also on the original syllabus but got dropped due to the pandemic closing campus and sending students home.)

Most of this list is pretty good, really, but I would definitely make some changes. For one thing, I'd like to see a little better representation of women as protagonists here, not just supporting characters. There are obvious boxes being checked in terms of minority and international representation, but some of those choices could be better (why come in with Creed for a bunch of kids who probably haven't seen any of the earlier Rocky films?). Here are the substitutions I might make:

Batman Returns (1992) - Change to Blade (1998) because it's not a sequel, features a black comic book hero with a great female lead, too, and taps into the enduring interest in vampires

The Way Way Back (2013) - Change to The Breakfast Club (1985) because I feel like John Hughes needs to be in here somewhere and the ensemble cast gives lots of teen types to explore. I also don't love having really recent movies in the mix because 1) kids are more likely to have seen them anyway and 2) they need more time to shake out into "important" and not so much.

Creed (2015) - Change to The Color Purple (1985) because Blade gets you a black male superhero fighter and this list still needs more women's stories in it. Even Hidden Figures (2016) would be great if one is just determined to have really recent films on the list.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) - Change to Dark City (1998) because it still has lots of mind-bending weirdness and sci-fi cred but also tech noir cool and was Roger Ebert's favorite film of 1998. It's more original but less obvious than The Matrix (1999) and offers lots of opportunities to talk about film noir and science fiction and the nature of identity and memory. I will probably put Dark City on any syllabus where it makes any sense to have it because it's just that fantastic. I used to teach it as part of my film noir unit, and it always went over really well.

What 12-13 movies would YOU put on a film and narrative syllabus? I'd love to see your lists in the comments section!

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