Friday, November 30, 2012


A few of my fellow bloggers have taken the time to write reviews of my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and I want to share them here in hopes of sending some traffic their way and also proving that I'm not the only person who likes my book. :)

K. Dale Koontz over at Unfettered Brilliance was one of the first people to buy a copy AND actually read it. Here's her review, which also includes a discussion of the movie, Hotel Transylvania.

Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane just posted this very thorough review. Thanks, Will!

There are also a couple of reviews over on the Amazon page for the book, which you can find here.

If anyone else takes the time to post a review of the book on a blog or site, please let me know, and I will post a link to it, too.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)

Like Star Wars (1977), The Muppet Movie (1979) was a watershed event in the formation of Gen Xers' cinematic culture. Jim Henson and George Lucas certainly recognized a common spirit in one another, and their films resonated with their youthful audiences in similarly enduring ways. By the time the first Muppet film appeared, The Muppet Show had already been on television for several seasons, but the movie was something larger and more ambitious, in terms of both puppetry and narrative. The Muppet Movie also shares with Star Wars a deep and pervasive debt to the film traditions that had come before, although The Muppet Movie celebrates its relationship to classic movies more overtly and self-consciously than Lucas' film. This playful awareness of itself as part of the great Hollywood tradition is part of the movie's charm, and it helps to set The Muppet Movie apart as a special kind of family film, both smart and sentimental, both wildly creative and instantly accessible, a film that rewards the adult viewer with different but equal pleasures from those experienced by the child.

The plot follows a classic Hollywood line: Kermit the Frog, talented, generous, and completely inexperienced, sets off for Hollywood to become a star. Along the way he picks up a menagerie of companions, including Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and The Great Gonzo. They encounter a number of obstacles on the way to realizing their dream, chiefly embodied by the greedy Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who intends to use Kermit as the spokesfrog for his fried frogs' legs restaurant chain, whether Kermit likes the idea or not.

The plot of The Muppet Movie combines elements of two popular Hollywood genres, the show business picture and the road picture. The show business plot ties it to films like A Star is Born (pick a version), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and a host of other movies in which starry-eyed kids arrive in Tinseltown looking for their own "standard rich and famous contracts," while the road elements connect it with films like the Hope and Crosby vehicles and even The Wizard of Oz (1939). Both genres can be played as either comedy or drama, and The Muppet Movie incorporates both, although its drama is generally tinged with enough surreal weirdness to render it palatable to the youngest members of the audience. Thinking about it now, it seems to me that the classic film The Muppet Movie most resembles is Sullivan's Travels (1941), with its emphasis on the importance of making people laugh combined with its picaresque adventures and Hollywood self-reflection. There are times in Preston Sturges' brilliant comedy when Sullivan does not feel like laughing at all, becoming downcast and even in despair, and Kermit shares those moments during his own journey. Still, both stories insist on the belief that it will all come right in the end.

The Muppet characters have their own indebtedness to classic films and types, having been created to reflect the values and conventions of Vaudeville and other old school entertainment institutions, and in The Muppet Movie those relationships get more play because of the opportunities presented by the sustained narrative. While Kermit, for example, possesses a certain affinity with Sturges' Sullivan, he might rightly be called a Capraesque hero, as well. Henson could have named his picture Mr. Frog Goes to Hollywood and summed it up pretty handily. If Kermit were a human being and not a frog, he would be played by Jimmy Stewart (Roger Ebert has called him "Mickey Rooney in a frog suit," but I think he has more romantic charisma than that implies). The sense of common ground between Henson and Capra characters becomes particularly obvious in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), which more or less recreates the entire plot of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with Kermit as its amphibian George Bailey. Miss Piggy has her own classic movie roots; with her diva's ego and talent for self-transformation, she channels the glamor and hard-edged determination of stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In The Muppet Movie, her lust for fame causes her to abandon Kermit, the frog of her heart, but her porcine melodrama brings her back to him in time to share in his success.

The scores of cameo appearances that populate The Muppet Movie shore up these affiliations. We get, in no particular order, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, and Orson Welles, just to name a few of the veteran performers who appear in the film. The presence of Welles is probably the most interesting from a classic film perspective; imagine the man who made Citizen Kane (1941), arguably the greatest movie of all time, appearing in The Muppet Movie! It's the cinematic equivalent of the Pope's blessing. Many of these stars were better known for their television careers, but all had experience in the movies, including Milton Berle, who had been appearing in silent films in Hollywood since the age of 5.

The Muppet Movie was a collaborative effort, as were all of Jim Henson's productions; director James Frawley, writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns, and the entire crew of puppeteers all had to share a dream as much as the Muppet characters themselves in order to make the film a success. What they also shared was a very sharp eye for what made classic Hollywood films so good, their energy and spirit, their familiar types and universal themes. They drew from the best that had been done before, and it gave their felt and fur characters a kind of gravity even when they were being the most ridiculous, the way that characters are in the films of Sturges and Capra and Hawks. In that sense, The Muppet Movie is a true classic, and it's just as worthwhile to watch it today as it was more than thirty years ago.

For more films that share the themes and spirit of The Muppet Movie, try 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and Babes in Arms (1939). Round out the classic Muppet trilogy by watching The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) before moving on to films made after Jim Henson's death, including The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney's The Muppets (2011).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

My author copies of The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson just arrived today, which reminded me that it was time to revise and reprint this review of the original Muppet film. The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson is the second anthology of essays I have edited with my friend and colleague, Anissa Graham. It's now available on Amazon and through numerous other book retailers, along with our original anthology, Kermit Culture. Both books were published by McFarland. In case you're wondering, my favorite Muppet is The Great Gonzo, which might explain why I try to do so many different things "while and at the same time!"

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

Few classic films are more iconic than The Maltese Falcon (1941). It occupies the same rarefied space reserved for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Casablanca (1942), yet its mood and style set it apart from the lavish spectacles created by the first two films, while its razor sharp nastiness makes it a different picture entirely from the third, even though they share several of the same stars. The Maltese Falcon is also unique in its role as the first appearance of a wholly new kind of American film, the noir picture, even though its roots lie in the gangster movies and European expressionist films of the 1930s. As lean and wolfish as Sam Spade himself, The Maltese Falcon remains one of the most famous of all movies because each of its many parts works so perfectly that the whole does indeed become the stuff that dreams are made of.

Based very closely on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon presents the story of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), a private detective in San Francisco who finds his latest case more trouble than he expected when his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), turns up dead. His attractive client (Mary Astor) offers Spade so many different names and half truths that getting to the bottom of Miles' murder requires getting involved with the mysterious lady's affairs right up to Spade's frequently imperiled neck. The whole seedy business boils down to a pack of thieves and a near mythical statue that all of them are willing to kill to possess.

Director John Huston penned the screenplay himself, and he wisely retained Hammett's grimly humorous lines and almost the entire plot of the original novel; this is really one of the most faithful adaptations of a literary work ever filmed for the big screen, and it says something about the slim elegance of Hammett's prose that such fidelity is even possible, even more that a faithful adaptation can simultaneously make for such outstanding cinema. Hammett's brilliant, jaded dialogue would come to epitomize noir cool, with lines like "Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, an assistant district attorney, and a stenographer" and "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." Naturally, there are a few changes. A subplot involving a girl in Gutman's retinue gets dropped, and the end of the film differs in some subtle but important ways. Oddly enough, Huston's ending is actually a little nicer than Hammett's, if one can call either ending "nice" at all.

Hammett had described his protagonist as "rather pleasantly like a blond Satan" in the novel, and of course Bogart is not blond, but he captures perfectly the balance of light and dark that make up Sam Spade's character. Spade is no hero, although he eventually tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy that he isn't as crooked as she might think, that being morally ambiguous is part of the job of being a private detective. He catches Miles' killer not because he liked Miles (he didn't), but because it's bad for business to let a job like that get by right under the detective's own nose. Spade lives a rough life and likes it that way as long as it pays well enough, and Bogart's devilish grin conveys his control over every ugly situation, particularly when he needles the tightly wound Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and dances his way around the questions of the local cops.

The rest of the cast give the performances of their careers here. Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Elisha Cook, Jr. make for as faithless and dishonorable a den of thieves as one could hope for; their chemistry as a group crackles with equal parts menace and humor. As the effeminate Joel Cairo, Lorre walks a very fine line, suggesting the sexual attraction Cairo feels for Wilmer but keeping it subtle enough to get by the censors. Hammett had been able to get away with more of that aspect of the character in the novel, but it takes a character actor as brilliant as Lorre to make it work on screen without tempting the fate of the censors' morally anxious editors. Effie Perine, played beautifully by Lee Patrick, might be the only really lovable character in the whole thing, which is precisely why Spade won't give her the time of day. Astor, Patrick, and Gladys George as Iva Archer make a fascinating trinity of the feminine types that populate the noir world, and it's no surprise that the bad girls outnumber the good ones two to one.

The Maltese Falcon earned three Oscar nominations in 1942, although it won nothing, and How Green Was My Valley (1941) carried away all of the honors instead. In retrospect, Huston couldn't have felt too bad about that, since the other film that lost to the sentimental family drama that year was Citizen Kane (1941). For more of Bogart's best films, see The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1951), the last two of which were also directed by Huston. Look for Mary Astor in The Great Lie (1941), for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Don't miss Peter Lorre in M (1931) and Mad Love (1935), two early roles that helped to define the course of his macabre career. Elisha Cook Jr. turns up in all sorts of places, from Shane (1953) to Rosemary's Baby (1968), but he's great fun to watch in House on Haunted Hill (1959). You'll find Sydney Greenstreet in Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and The Woman in White (1948), but The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca are certainly his most memorable appearances on film.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: HOLIDAY (1938)

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn starred in two films together in 1938: they made Bringing Up Baby with Howard Hawks, of course, but they also made Holiday with George Cukor. The Hawks film is the more famous of the two today, but Holiday is a great movie, too, with a more serious undertone seasoning its use of the familiar conventions of the romantic comedy. There are no leopards here, but there is genuine feeling and an acute awareness of the more painful emotions that so often erupt when one unexpectedly falls in love.

Grant stars as Johnny Case, a smart young businessman (pulled up by his own bootstraps, naturally) who has fallen in love with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), not knowing that she is really extremely wealthy. He arrives at her address and promptly goes to look for her in the servants' quarters, assuming that she must be a maid or a secretary in this imposing edifice. Imagine his surprise when he learns that his intended is not only loaded but that she has some pretty firm plans of her own about what their marriage is going to entail. Johnny soon finds himself being pushed and pulled in several directions at once, caught between his own hopes and dreams and the increasingly insistent demands of his future wife and father-in-law. His expectations are further altered by his introduction to Julia's sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), a free spirit painfully stifled by the overly controlled atmosphere that comes with the Seton wealth and privilege.

Classic Hollywood films so often promote the fantasy of the whirlwind romance, where boy meets girl and then both of them immediately meet the justice of the peace. It's an aspect of the romantic comedy that I find troubling, although sudden marriage helps explain the popularity of the second marriage plot in other films, where characters who previously fell for each other too quickly have to learn to understand their relationship properly the second time around. Holiday points out some of the problems with the usual gallop to the altar: Johnny doesn't know anything about Julia, and the more he knows the less in love he becomes, but by then they are already engaged and everybody expects a wedding. Of course, Linda has lived with Julia all her life, and she doesn't seem to know her sister any better than Johnny does. The two of them discover Julia's true nature together, and along the way they find out that they have a lot in common, including a perverse sense of loyalty to the unworthy Julia that might end up wrecking their own chance at happiness.

The principal performers bring a balanced mix of drama and comedy to their roles. Hepburn and Grant are two of a kind, both witty and elegant, equally capable of wild physical comedy and stirring emotional depth. Grant's acrobatics are particularly fun to watch; his Johnny is a man who literally bounds with zeal, even as Julia attempts to contain and repress that lovable energy. Hepburn is funny and wry but also bitterly unhappy as Linda; she yearns to break free from her buried life but can only take refuge in the playroom until Johnny appears and shows her the way out. Even more tragic is the role of Ned, beautifully played by Lew Ayres. Ned has the misfortune to be his father's only son, his natural talent for music crushed and wasted by the old man's desire for an heir to the business throne. Ned sees alcohol as his only way of escaping and avenging himself, and no movie drunk was ever more graceful or more pitiful than this young man. The final scene between Ned and Linda is especially moving; he wants to go with her, wants her to go, but he seems too much resigned to his fate to be able to defy his scowling father once and for all.

Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon have some wonderful scenes as Johnny's friends, a dotty academic couple who love Johnny like a son and only want to see him happy with someone who is right for him. Anyone who has ever been thrust into an uncomfortably high class social setting will sympathize with the Potters as they fidget and squirm their way through Johnny and Julia's engagement party. Every minor faux pas unsettles them and becomes magnified until they are reduced to hiding from the rest of the guests. In the vocabulary of the film, this is how we know that they are real people and not stuffed shirts like the majority of the Seton crowd. Their inclusion in the playroom set reveals their worth as individuals, just as it tells us that Johnny and Linda are made for each other. Being a proper grown-up isn't all that it's cracked up to be, since the childish characters are the only ones who seem to know how to have any fun. Tragedy is the province of the adults in this movie; comedy belongs to those who can listen to their inner child.

Holiday earned an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction but could not compete with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which won that award and two others in a year of stiff competition. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). George Cukor, who directed both of those films, also directed Dinner at Eight (1933), The Women (1939), and My Fair Lady (1964). Lew Ayres earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Johnny Belinda (1948), but you can also see him in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the Dr. Kildare movies, and Advise & Consent (1962). Don't miss the delightful Edward Everett Horton providing comic relief to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Shall We Dance (1937).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946)

Originally intended as a parody of Casablanca (1942), the Marx Brothers picture, A Night in Casablanca (1946), bears only passing resemblance to the earlier film. Not surprisingly, the picture veers off wildly from the ostensible source material, allowing Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to ply their trademark zany gags and one liners to great effect. The funny business gets off to a slow start, but it moves into full swing once the three Marx characters are brought together, and there are moments hilarious enough to make even the most jaded viewer laugh out loud. Though not as famous as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935), A Night in Casablanca is a fun film that demonstrates the wacky talents of these classic comedians, and parents might find it very useful as a way to introduce children to the delights of classic movies.

The plot really doesn't matter, but it revolves around a hotel in Casablanca where all of the managers are being murdered by former Nazis who want to find a hidden cache of their ill-gotten loot from the war. Groucho appears as the new manager, Ronald Kornblow, while Harpo and Chico are Rusty and Corbaccio, two bumbling fellows who work a motley assortment of odd jobs around the city. Straight man Zeppo had already departed from the act at this point, so handsome Charles Drake takes the job in the guise of Lt. Pierre Delmar, suitably paired up with romantic interest Annette, played by Lois Collier. Sig Ruman seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly as the leader of the Nazis, while Lisette Verea plays his girlfriend, Beatrice, who attempts to seduce Groucho in an effort to bump him off. Despite their wild antics and relentless bumbling, our comic trio inevitably saves the day, allowing the romantic young people to get together and foiling the Nazis' dastardly plans.

Nobody, however, watches a Marx Brothers movie for the plot, and it definitely takes a back seat to the setting up of various gags and then paying them off. The only roles the brothers are really playing are those of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and that's who moviegoers paid to see, anyway. The later Marx Brothers films are basically cartoons staged with live actors, so the jokes are outsized and over the top as a matter of course. Our first glimpse of Harpo arrives as a policeman finds him literally "holding up a building" by leaning against it, and when the cop drags Harpo away, the building promptly crashes to the ground. Groucho slouches around delivering his usual innuendo filled zingers and chewing on his omnipresent cigar, but children won't notice that Groucho's lines are really off-color remarks, so they should cause even the most conservative parent little concern. Young viewers are much more drawn to Harpo, a true chaos engine, whose face lights up at every opportunity to create havoc. The scene in which Harpo and Chico cram customers and tables into a supper club is a great one; there's so much frantic energy going on, and in the midst of it all Groucho serenely dances on with Beatrice and makes wisecracks about the state of the place.

The best scene in the picture is probably the twist on the old hallway gag, where comic characters rush in and out of various hallway doors, often defying physical plausibility as they pop back and forth, much to the characters' confusion and the audience's delight. Shaggy and the gang from Scooby Doo are outstanding practitioners of this sort of humor, but the Marx Brothers offer a great variation on the theme by substituting the closets and luggage in the head Nazi's bedroom for the hallway doors. As the various Nazis attempt to pack up the loot and make their escape, the brothers pop in and out of the trunks and the closet, rearranging everything as they go and causing the Nazis to gnash their teeth in frustration at the strange and inexplicable events. The bit with the mysteriously moving closet doors is especially good, but the whole thing is a perfect example of the Marx Brothers' comedic timing and penchant for visual gags.

Personally, I think A Night in Casablanca is funnier than some of the earlier Marx Brothers films, like Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932), in part because it seems a more cinematic experience, while the earliest pictures can be a little too aware of themselves as stage routines merely being acted out in front of a camera. They are all funny, however, and if you show one to junior film fans you might very well have to show them all, since the basic schtick remains constant throughout, and Harpo in particular is a delightful master of silent physical comedy, something that even very young viewers can appreciate. Older viewers should take a moment to savor the musical interludes; Chico and Harpo each get a chance to shine in the film, and their skills at the piano and the harp are truly impressive, proving that there was more to the Marx Brothers than the zany jokes for which they are chiefly remembered.

For more from the brothers, see A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), and Go West (1940). Groucho also teams up with Carmen Miranda in Copacabana (1947), and the two of them make for a very funny pair. Archie Mayo, who directed A Night in Casablanca, also headed up The Petrified Forest (1936), Charley's Aunt (1941), and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), as well as the famously lost pre-Code picture, Convention City (1933).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Christmas Shopping for Classic Movie Fans?

If you happen to have classic movie fans on your Christmas list this year, you might consider getting them my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching. I bet you that they don't already have it! It's $18 at Amazon and Barnes &, and on Amazon it is available for Prime free shipping.

I'm really proud of the book and excited to be able to share my passion for classic films with readers. As a teacher, both of college students and lifetime learners, one of my favorite things has been the chance to introduce students to film. It's a wonderful moment when someone comes up to me and tells me how much they enjoyed a movie that they watched for the first time in one of my classes! The book is an effort to share that same experience on a larger scale. I hope people will enjoy reading it, but even more I hope it will lead them to classic movies they have never seen before or help them appreciate old favorites in new ways.

If you'd like to know what the reviews in the book are like, you might spend a few minutes browsing this blog, where I post full-length reviews of classic films. I offer brief (spoiler-free!) plot summaries but focus on what a viewer needs to know to appreciate the movie before seeing it. I also try to provide a list of additional films a person might enjoy next. Because of my background as an English professor (I have a PhD in English from Auburn University, as well as degrees from Agnes Scott College and Georgia Southern University), I tend to discuss elements like narrative, character, and symbolism more than strictly technical aspects of cinematography. I also talk about the cultural legacy of a film - the forces that produced it and the influence it has had since its original release.

Since today is Black Friday, it's a great time to head on over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and pop Beyond Casablanca in your shopping cart. Thanks to everyone out there who has already bought a copy, and happy shopping to everyone else!

Beyond Casablanca on Amazon
Beyond Casablanca on Barnes &

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (1950)

Tolstoy might have thought that happy families are all alike, but he didn't live during the era of Hollywood family films like Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), where the sheer diversity of happy families generated picture after picture about different domestic clans with their own unique stories. Thus we have movies like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Life With Father (1947), and I Remember Mama (1948), as well as many others, often adapted from non-fiction memoirs or thinly veiled autobiographies. Cheaper by the Dozen is no exception; based on the popular memoir by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, the original movie has nothing beyond its title in common with the purely fictional 2003 remake starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, and it certainly outshines the later picture in charm, poignancy, and inoffensive family amusement. While Cheaper by the Dozen is not among the greatest classic films ever made, it offers a very entertaining view of family life in the 1920s that both children and adults can enjoy, and its nostalgic presentation of parents as thoughtful, funny, and understanding people provides a welcome tonic to the way in which mothers and fathers are so often depicted in "family" films today.

Directed by Walter Lang, the movie stars Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy as the Gilbreth parents, whose own work in industrial engineering and efficiency has not prevented them from generating a family of twelve children, six boys and six girls. Jeanne Crain plays their eldest daughter, Ann, whose transition to womanhood creates some drama and humor within the family, as poor Ann is the first of the offspring to have to persuade her parents to let her grow up. The story of the family's life, leading up to a major event that alters it forever, is told through a series of vignettes spread out over several years.

Like many films of this sort, the vignette model for story-telling leaves something to be desired in the plot department; the sketches that we see are interesting and funny but don't really build the story's tension to a climactic height. If you have seen a number of family stories, or if you already know the history of the real Gilbreth family, you can see the major event of the movie coming, but the earlier parts of the film don't necessarily emphasize a movement in that direction, and the film uses the event as an endpoint rather than a climax. Some of the best scenes are the shortest and least consequential ones, like the father's interview with the principal at the children's school or the family's acquisition of a dog in spite of their patriarch's objections, but they demonstrate the family's love for one another and the father's intense pride in and devotion to his numerous brood. Even the smallest families will recognize the affectionate truth about parents and children living together in these scenes, and they may well prove productive starting points for conversations about important family decisions and situations.

Classic movie fans will appreciate Cheaper by the Dozen primarily for its leads; this is a chance to see Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, both strong performers with illustrious careers, in some rather different roles. Webb rose to fame as the urbane villain of Otto Preminger's noir hit, Laura (1944), but he was also well known in the late 1940s as the snippy title character of the Mr. Belvedere films (which inspired the later television series). Webb's performance as the benevolently eccentric Frank Gilbreth makes for an interesting contrast with these other roles, and his version of the old-fashioned pater familias rounds out those of Leon Ames in Meet Me in St. Louis and of Willam Powell in Life With Father.

Loy, who began her career in silent films, was a major star in the 1930s whose biggest role came when she played Nora Charles opposite William Powell in The Thin Man movies. By the end of the 1940s, she had aged out of the vampish parts that opened her career and was playing more mature characters, including the loving war wife of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and the career-minded older sister in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). As the Gilbreth matriarch, Loy combines her ladylike bearing and visible intelligence with the soft, angelic vision of maternity so often associated with motherhood in these sorts of films. That she does it without becoming a wan sort of martyr to domesticity is a testament both to her own acting talent and to the real Lillian Gilbreth, who held a doctoral degree in industrial psychology and was tremendously influential in her field, so much so that she is sometimes called "The First Lady of Engineering" and even had a US postage stamp issued in her honor as a Great American in 1984.

If you enjoy movies about large families or Americana, Cheaper by the Dozen offers a good choice that the entire family can watch together. If you find yourself really interested in the story of the Gilbreth family, you'll be happy to know that the first film was popular enough to warrant a sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952), adapted from the follow-up memoir written by the Gilbreth children. Both of the memoirs are currently available in print, and those who want to know more about Lillian Gilbreth might enjoy Jane Lancaster's 2006 biography, Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth - A Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen." For more from director Walter Lang, try the Shirley Temple version of The Little Princess (1939), the musical classic, The King and I (1956), or the Tracy and Hepburn comedy, Desk Set (1957).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Classic Movies at the Library in December

As part of my ongoing efforts to promote Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, I'll be introducing and screening two classic movies at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in December. These are free events and open to the public, and of course I will have copies of the book for sale at both films!

On Monday, December 3, we'll be watching The African Queen (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The next week, on Monday, December 10, we'll get into the holiday spirit with Frank Capra's Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell.

Both events begin at 6 p.m. in the second floor room of the main library. If you live in the Huntsville area, I hope you'll join us for some communal movie watching and lively discussion!

Beyond Casablanca is currently available on Amazon and Barnes & 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1934) is the film that made Bette Davis a star, and it's easy enough to see why. Her portrayal of the morally bankrupt Mildred Rogers dominates the picture, despite the fact that Leslie Howard's character is technically the protagonist. Few young actresses would be so willing to inhabit such a thoroughly unlikable persona, but Mildred is a true Bette Davis part, a difficult character whose descent is marked by radical physical transformation over the course of the film. Dark and unyielding in its depiction of the depths of human weakness and corruptibility, Of Human Bondage delivers on the theme promised in its title, presenting an excellent consideration of the ties that bind, even to the point of strangulation.

Howard is the established star here, and the plot follows his character, a club-footed, uncertain young man named Philip Carey. His hopes of being an artist dashed by his mediocre talent, Philip is adrift; he pursues a medical career without really seeming to care about it or anything else, until he meets Davis' Cockney waitress in a restaurant. Something about her strikes a chord, and he begins to court her, although she clearly fails to return his ardor. She replies to his passionate entreaties with the same coy, mocking phrase, "I don't mind," shrugging her shoulders with indifference. Eventually Mildred abandons him for another lover, but, like a bad penny, she turns up again, always just in time to blight whatever progress Philip has managed to make on his own. Like the fool he is, Philip repeatedly allows Mildred back into his life, although each return reveals her at a lower point in her downward spiral.

Leslie Howard's Philip is typical of his characters, aloof, diffident, but searching for something about which he can really care. The club foot only adds to the air of frailty about him; we can see how sensitive and self-conscious he is about his deformity and about himself in general. He's amiable enough, but he seems to be tailor made for a chump, a quality that Davis' Mildred instantly recognizes. Against Howard's wan sensitivity, Davis is all hard edges and cruel, animal intelligence. Both the picture and the protagonist belong to her from the moment she first appears on screen. Always fearless in her willingness to be ugly on camera, Davis undertakes a striking transformation as Mildred sinks lower into vice and corruption. When we first see her, she is prim and attractive in her waitress uniform, but by the end of the film she has become a wasted hag, a terrible casualty of drug abuse, promiscuity, and her own rotten core. Even the luminous Frances Dee as Philip's new love interest, Sally, can barely compete with Mildred, and one gets the sense that Philip might have fallen under that destructive spell yet again had fate not intervened.

The issue of class lurks in the background of the story as one of its subtler and more troublesome themes. Philip is clearly born to civilized pursuits, like art and medicine; he's a white collar man whose lifestyle is supported by money from an unseen uncle. Yes, he needs to find an occupation, but his destined social space lies much higher than Mildred's lower class sphere. Is Philip merely slumming when he first becomes involved with Mildred? Are Mildred's fatal flaws those of an individual woman or of her entire class? There are some interesting counterpoints to this uneven match in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), where Angela Lansbury plays the lower class girl and Hurd Hatfield is the upper class man, only there the moral qualities of the characters have been switched. Tragically, it doesn't turn out any better for the woman because of it. In class conscious Britain, romances like these are always suspect, although they don't work out much better in American films like Stella Dallas (1937) and Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940).

Of Human Bondage was also adapted for film in 1946 with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker and in 1964 with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak. It would make for an interesting weekend to watch all three of them together. If you'd rather enjoy more of Davis and Howard, try The Petrified Forest (1936). Davis undertakes other striking physical transformations in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), Mrs. Skeffington (1944), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Director John Cromwell also made Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and Since You Went Away (1944).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE LETTER (1940)

Like Of Human Bondage (1934), The Letter is another Bette Davis film based on a W. Somerset Maugham work, and it's clear that Maugham was a master at writing the kind of duplicitous, destructive character Davis was born to play. Directed by William Wyler, The Letter is a fascinating study in duplicity and deception, a film where every light side has its dark double and every shot is laden with layers of meaning for the astute observer. The anti-heroine of the film is one of Davis' most insidiously destructive roles, never overtly evil and yet capable of bringing death and ruin to every man who comes near her. Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1941, The Letter won nothing, but the merit of a film should never be determined simply by the number of gold statues it accumulates, as this deadly little fable offers quite an exciting ride as well as an intriguing depiction of Orientalist hysteria.

The film opens as plantation wife Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) pursues a mortally injured man out onto the veranda of her home. She proceeds to empty a pistol into the mysterious stranger, and the loud reports of each shot stir the sleeping plantation workers to life. Soon her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), and a small cadre of other white men are gathered to sort out the facts of the incident. Leslie insists that the dead man assaulted her in a drunken passion and that she shot him in self-defense, a story that her husband and her defense attorney (James Stephenson) both seem prepared to buy. Unfortunately for Leslie, the dead man's widow has a letter that suggests the truth about what happened that night at the plantation.

The story is set in the East, first at the Crosbies' rubber plantation in British Malaya and then in Singapore, where Leslie's trial takes place. The contrast between the refined, over-dressed English and the native population is marked; the sweaty, impassive faces of the plantation workers fill the scene after the shooting incident ends, and then the white men arrive, casually bossing everyone around and imposing order with their rules and formalities. The Brits merely look rumpled and uncomfortable most of the time; repression is a way of life with them. The idea that one might succumb to passion is unseemly and despicable; believing the dead man to be guilty, they congratulate Leslie on her proper response to such outrageous behavior, little suspecting that it is Leslie herself who has really become consumed by animal lust. This is, of course, the danger of the East; one risks infection through too much contact.

That alarming Orientalist fear is realized in the dead man, as well, who turns out to be Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell). Hammond had been notorious as a ladies' man before inexplicably marrying a Eurasian woman, an act that is seen as a kind of race betrayal, even though the woman is half European. The film makes much of the opposition between the fair-skinned, light-haired Leslie and the fantastically exotic Mrs. Hammond, who is played as a kind of dragon lady by a heavily made-up Gale Sondergaard. It would be offensive if it weren't so obviously ironic, with pointedly Eastern music entering Max Steiner's score each time Mrs. Hammond appears on screen. In one telling scene, Leslie enters Singapore's Chinatown to buy the incriminating letter from Mrs. Hammond. Leslie appears in a heavy white veil, looking innocent and frightened but bravely going on, while the imperious Mrs. Hammond looks down on her with a fixed expression of hatred, her dark face framed by black hair and lavishly foreign jewelry. Which is the offender, and which is the victim? The film challenges us to contrast the facts that we know with the stereotypes that we see.

Director William Wyler uses symbols to full effect, including the clouds that move over the moon and the long shadows that reach out from the characters and dominate the screen. The most interesting symbolic element is Leslie's compulsive lace-making. We see her at it over and over throughout the film, tatting the way that a spider spins a web. Like a black widow, she lures the men around her into her trap and then destroys them. Her husband is devastated to realize that his wife is a stranger to him, her lawyer betrays his own ethics to defend her, and her lover ends up dead. The elaborate lacework that she constructs represents her creation of a life built out of lies; when she becomes unable to work at it any longer, we know that she has become disgusted with her own duplicity, but the damage that she has done to the men cannot be undone, and only one ending awaits.

Rebecca (1940) swept the Oscars the year that The Letter was up for its awards, but in retrospect The Letter is certainly the tighter and more thrilling of the two films. For more of Bette Davis, see The Petrified Forest (1936), Jezebel (1938), and Dark Victory (1939). Be sure to catch Gale Sondergaard as the amusingly coquettish Inez Quintero in The Mark of Zorro (1940); she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Anthony Adverse (1936) and was nominated again for Anna and the King of Siam (1946). James Stephenson, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Letter, also appears with Davis in The Old Maid (1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). William Wyler earned a dozen nominations for Best Director and won for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.


Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) offers as much Technicolor pomp and spectacle as one could hope for in a lavish Warner Brothers costume drama, as well as the stars to match. Bette Davis rules the screen as Elizabeth I, but her court boasts luminaries as diverse as Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Nanette Fabray. The story plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and reveals a very irksome sense of sexual politics, but Elizabeth and Essex offers viewers a terrific cast and particularly fascinating performance from an almost unrecognizable Davis, here transforming herself into a mythic monarch twice her actual age.

As the aging queen, Davis presides over a royal court that bristles with rival factions, sycophants, and spies. Despite her passionate love for the much younger Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn), Elizabeth distrusts his ambition and his ulterior motives, while his enemies do everything in their power to discredit him. One of Elizabeth's attendants, Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland), would steal the Earl's affection for herself if she could, while Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) hopes to supplant Essex as the queen's new favorite. Even Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp), supposedly a friend to both Essex and the queen, looks to his own interests first. When the manipulative courtiers arrange for Essex to lead a losing war against the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) in Ireland, their subsequent treachery brings the lovers to a tragic confrontation.

The movie, adapted from the play by Maxwell Anderson, concerns itself much more with romance than history, although Elizabeth's real relationship with Essex certainly inspires some raised eyebrows. The events that unfold in the film do, at least, offer a sense of the dangerous nature of Elizabethan court life, and Essex really did suffer the fate shown in the conclusion, as would his rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, some years later. Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than Essex, which we see in Davis' remarkable appearance, but Essex also had a wife and several children, and they are conveniently absent here.

The romantic angle depends upon a certain reading of Elizabeth's nature that one might uncharitably describe as that of a love-starved cougar. Davis excelled at playing difficult women who yearn for unconditional love, making this a perfect role for her, but it does a disservice to the historical queen's abilities as a ruler. Davis' version seems overburdened by the weight of the crown on her poor female head and wishes to be only a woman instead, while Flynn's sexist Essex would be perfectly happy to grant that wish provided that his masculine ego is gratified by his own ascension to the throne. Played merely as fictional romance, the set-up is dated though not particularly surprising, but as historical biography it's a suspicious undermining of the reputation of one of the greatest female leaders in the course of Western history.

Despite these issues, which might well trouble a feminist scholar a lot more than they will bother the average viewer, the movie has plenty of unqualified delights, from Davis' incredible physical appearance to the gorgeous costumes and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's terrific score. The sight of Vincent Price in tights, preening as the ambitious and devious Raleigh, is by itself enough to make the whole picture worth watching. Errol Flynn and Donald Crisp both offer memorable performances, and Alan Hale has a small but important role that puts him on the opposite side of the battle from his Robin Hood costar. It would be nice for Olivia de Havilland to have more to do as Lady Penelope, especially in the wake of her Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind performances, but Nanette Fabray has some very good scenes as the young Mistress Margaret, whose romantic problems inspire pity and sympathy in Elizabeth.

Nominated for five Oscars, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex suffered from the plethora of masterpieces made in 1939 and the competing performances of its own stars. Like Davis' other 1939 film, Dark Victory, Elizabeth and Essex went home empty-handed. Davis, interestingly enough, played Elizabeth again in 1955 in The Virgin Queen. For more big budget costume dramas, try The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Three Musketeers (1948), and Ivanhoe (1952). For more of Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland, see Captain Blood (1935), Dodge City (1939), and Santa Fe Trail (1940).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK ANGEL (1946)

Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Black Angel (1946) is a minor film noir from the classic period that merits attention more for its cast than its convoluted plot. Woolrich's work produced some interesting source material for movies, notably The Leopard Man (1943), Rear Window (1954), and The Bride Wore Black (1968), and that list alone ought to say something about the kind of story Black Angel has to tell. It's certainly no walk in the park, but its twists and turns never quite deliver, perhaps because the ending is so obvious that the suspense can't really build effectively. The dedicated classic film fan may well find the movie worth watching, however, because of the performances of noir regulars Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre.

The heroine of the picture is Catherine Bennett (June Vincent), whose husband is convicted of killing Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), the former wife of boozy musician Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Cathy asks Martin to help prove her husband's innocence, and their joint investigation leads them to Marko (Peter Lorre), an oily nightclub owner who obviously has something to hide. Posing as a musical act, Martin and Cathy go undercover at the club, but their dangerous gamble might not be enough to save Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), especially if Marko turns out to be the wrong man.

It would be inconsiderate to spoil the "shock" ending, but the movie telegraphs it so insistently that surely nobody is really going to be surprised. That's one weakness in the film, but another is June Vincent's Cathy, so resolutely a "good girl" type that she's determined to save the life of a man who was not only cheating on her but submitting to blackmail to keep her from finding out about it. The picture opens with the murder of the femme fatale character, but even in her few minutes on the screen Mavis Marlowe manages to be a lot more interesting than Cathy Bennett. It might be that the story leaves little room for her character to develop, but it might also be June Vincent's performance that leaves something to be desired. Either way, she can't really carry the picture, and we're left scratching our heads about her dogged devotion to her faithless spouse.

Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, on the other hand, are great fun to watch. Duryea makes a memorable heavy in pictures like Ball of Fire (1941) and Scarlet Street (1945), but here he's more sympathetic, still a hard luck case but a nice enough guy as long as he stays on the wagon. Lorre gets to be the tough guy for a change, and he pulls it off beautifully, proving his own versatility in character roles. Of course, his most memorable work is with extreme characters, like the serial killer in M (1931) or Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but here he shows that he can play a more subtle line, as well. Between the two of them they almost make up for the lackluster heroine's plot.

For more classic noir with Dan Duryea, be sure to see Scarlet Street (1945). You'll find Peter Lorre in dozens of great pictures, but M (1931) made him a star, while his performance in Casablanca (1942) helped ensure his enduring celebrity. For more from director Roy William Neill, try Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) or any of the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: DRAGONWYCK (1946)

Although it’s not as well known today as Gothic thrillers like Rebecca (1940) and Gaslight (1944), Dragonwyck (1946) sprang from the tremendous vogue for romantic thrillers that those movies helped to establish during the 1940s. The picture was adapted from a 1944 novel by Anya Seton, and the late date of the source material helps us understand the story’s obvious affinities with du Maurier and her own muse, Charlotte BrontĂ«. One of the first films directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Dragonwyck boasts all the flourishes of the classic female Gothic, but its chief attractions are the exquisite Gene Tierney as the imperiled heroine and Vincent Price as her broodingly Byronic spouse.

Tierney stars as Miranda Wells, who thinks her dreams have come true when a distant relative summons her to serve as a companion to his young daughter (Connie Marshall). It soon becomes apparent, though, that the imperious Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) has other designs on his beautiful cousin, especially after his wife (Vivienne Osborne) mysteriously dies. Despite the romantic overtures of a handsome local doctor (Glenn Langan), Miranda falls under Nicholas’ dangerous spell, and soon her own life is threatened as Nicholas becomes increasingly deranged.

Both Fox players, Tierney and Price had already appeared together in films like Hudson’s Bay (1941), Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), but Price has a much larger role in Dragonwyck and therefore gets more opportunity to exercise his tremendous screen presence. His Van Ryn is more restrained than the horror characters he would eventually play, but already the outlines of the later Corman characters are clear. Price was handsome enough for a leading man, as Dragonwyck proves, but his particular talent for a cruel twist of the mouth made him far more entertaining as an antagonist. He has an undeniable sexual appeal that makes Miranda’s attraction to him credible, even though the lines of his face and the sarcastic light in his eyes inform the audience of his character’s true nature. Tierney has a complex heroine to play, for Miranda has to remain sympathetic in spite of the flaws that lead her to her fate. Her beauty encourages us to forgive her, and Tierney is at her most lovely in her gorgeous period gowns. The two stars find capable support in the secondary cast, with Glen Langan as the opposite of Price in nearly every way, Walter Huston fiercely righteous as Miranda’s God-fearing father, and Anne Revere kindly as Miranda's loving mother. Spring Byington provides a delightfully creepy performance as the housekeeper, Magda, who ominously warns Miranda of the mansion’s dark past.

Like most of the Gothic thrillers of the era, Dragonwyck has its roots in Jane Eyre, which had gotten its own big Hollywood treatment in the 1943 picture starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Miranda differs from Jane because she has the benefit of concerned, practical parents who worry over her dreamy notions, but still we have the unhappy first wife, the brooding anti-hero, and the lonely child populating the shadowy, history-haunted halls of the ancestral estate. Dragonwyck breaks away from the narrative arc of the earlier work in its second half, but its deviations still draw upon the conventions of the traditional Gothic, particularly in its use of the vengeful, wandering ghost and its evocation of the old story of Bluebeard and his wives. Those who are interested in the Gothic tradition will find its parallels and variations fascinating, although the film occasionally errs, especially when it drops characters like Magda and the little girl, Katrine, without explanation about halfway through the story.

Look for beloved character actors Harry Morgan as tenant farmer Klaas Bleecker and Jessica Tandy as Miranda’s Irish maid, Peggy O’Malley. For more from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, try The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), All About Eve (1950), and People Will Talk (1951). See Vincent Price in iconic horror roles in House of Wax (1953), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and Corman films like The Raven (1963) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). In addition to her previously mentioned roles, catch Gene Tierney in the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch classic, Heaven Can Wait (1943).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.