Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)

If people think of Al Jolson at all today, they think of him in blackface, belting out his plaintive "Mammy" song at the end of The Jazz Singer (1927) or in countless cartoon parodies of it. It may well discourage viewers from giving the original movie a chance, which is a shame because, as problematic as such a moment has become, it only accounts for a small part of what is mostly a very good picture, with a surprisingly sensitive take on a different minority group's American experience. Although The Jazz Singer is often cited merely as a footnote in movie history, it has enough merit as a film in its own right to reward viewers who enjoy sentimental tales of the conflict between personal desire and familial duty, and those interested in the Jewish-American experience ought to find it especially compelling.

Jolson stars as Jakie Rabinowitz, the American-born son of Jewish immigrants who struggle to pass their Old World values on to the next generation. Jakie, meant by his father (Warner Oland) to continue the traditional family role as cantor, rebels against a life spent in the synagogue because he longs to be a jazz singer and a star. He runs away from home after a particularly heart-rending scene with his father, changes his name to Jack Robin, and pursues a life on the stage. There he meets Mary Dale (May McAvoy), another ambitious young soul who urges him on to stardom, but Jakie is torn by his feelings. Through all of his highs and lows, Jakie's mother (Eugenie Besserer) remains devoted to him and longs to see their broken family ties restored.

I don't intend to defend blackface as a practice; it's certainly racist and offensive to modern viewers, but it was a staple of the minstrel shows and vaudeville routines that shaped Jolson's career and those of many of his contemporaries. You'll find it in many classic films that people still watch, including A Day at the Races (1937) and Holiday Inn (1942), and even the all African-American picture, Stormy Weather (1943). Like sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other kinds of prejudice, racism is one of those things viewers and readers have to confront when they look at works from earlier eras.

Still, there's a lot more going on in The Jazz Singer than a white guy cashing in on the vogue for minstrel shows. The overwhelming concern of the story is Jakie's difficult position as a man caught between two worlds and two ways of living. His family's Jewish traditions have tremendous power within their community, and the film treats them as serious, holy moments (Jolson was, after all, born Asa Yoelson). The Jazz Singer does not take lightly the cantor's chosen life, and he is no Shylock, but a stern, loving father whose heart is broken by his son's defection from the ancestral path. It might be true that the sentimentality of the picture is too much for some modern viewers, but those who enjoy a good cry will respond to the aching desire of Jakie's mother and the late scenes that depict the subtle healing of the rift between father and son.

The Jazz Singer is also, of course, important to those interested in the transition from silent films to talkies. The picture is mostly silent, using title cards to relay spoken dialogue and plot points; it switches to sound only for the musical numbers, including the moment when Jolson famously says, "You ain't heard nothing yet!" You can read more about the film's place in history in this Filmsite review by Tim Dirks. Its significance to movie and especially musical history explains its inclusion in the recently released Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals, which also includes standards like Singin' in the Rain (1952) as well as other early musicals like The Broadway Melody (1929).

For more of Al Jolson's films, look for The Singing Fool (1928), The Singing Kid (1936), and Rose of Washington Square (1939). You might also be interested in The Al Jolson Story (1946), starring Larry Parks in the title role. To learn more about Al Jolson, visit the website of the Al Jolson Society. Alan Crosland, the director of The Jazz Singer, also directed silent classics like Don Juan (1926) and The Beloved Rogue (1927) as well as dozens of later talkies.

Disclaimer: Warner has provided a review copy of this film to the reviewer free of charge. No promise of a positive review is made in exchange for this product.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974)

One of the highlights of the new Best of Warner Bros. Musicals Collection is the 1974 montage picture, That's Entertainment!, which showcases some of the greatest moments in movie musical history, although admittedly with an MGM slant. For fans of the genre, the picture is a welcome chance to revisit favorite songs and stars and also catch a few more obscure moments from classic musicals. It's a sentimental and satisfying trip down memory lane, made even more nostalgic by the presence of many now departed stars as the hosts and hostesses of our journey.

The film goes all the way back to the early days of movie musicals and moves back and forth as it considers particular films and stars who have been influential in defining the genre. Not surprisingly, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly get the lion's share of the attention, although Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli also have prominent spots, and non-musical stars like Jimmy Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor also make appearances. Short introductory segments filmed mostly on the now destroyed MGM backlot serve to organize the musical clips, which feature Singin' in the Rain (1952), Royal Wedding (1951), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Good News (1947), among many others.

While the film includes all of the expected hits, the more offbeat segments might well appeal the most to musical fans, since here are numbers both unexpected and seldom seen. Clark Gable croons "Puttin' on the Ritz," and Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford both have their musical moments reviewed. Stewart provides some context for these numbers by recalling how eager the MGM studio heads were to try every performer out in a musical or two, regardless of actual talent for song and dance. Luckily, MGM found plenty of real ability in the stars who would become synonymous with the genre.

Most of the films included in the Best of Warner Collection are full-length musical narratives, including The Jazz Singer (1928), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and, naturally, Singin' in the Rain (1952). Even with 20 films in the set, however, there's a lot that has to be left out, and That's Entertainment! helps to fill in the gaps and provide an overview of the musical's history and appeal. The picture was a big enough success to spawn two theatrical sequels and a 1995 direct-to-video release, and you might track those down if you enjoy the original.

For more classic movie musicals, check out the rest of the films included in the Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection, or use That's Entertainment! as a starting point to guide you on to the films of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Esther Williams, and June Allyson. For more Warner musicals, try Footlight Parade (1933) and other Busby Berkeley productions of the 1930s.

See also: "Warner releases lavish musicals collection" on Examiner.com

Disclaimer: Warner Bros. has provided a review copy of this film free of charge to the reviewer. No promise of a positive review is made to the studio in exchange for this product.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: REBECCA (1940)

Rebecca (1940), adapted from Daphne du Maurier's hugely successful novel, looks like it ought to be a winner, given that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by David O. Selznick, and performed by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Indeed, it was a winner at the 1941 Academy Awards, where it snagged the Best Picture prize from contenders as worthy as The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath, and Kitty Foyle. It boasted a total of eleven nominations, including a second win for Best Cinematography in a black-and-white picture. Still, there's something missing from Rebecca, something essential that would have made it truly a great film and not merely a great success. Despite its excellent pedigree and shower of nominations, it disappoints; one wants to like it, and there are clearly some fine things in it, but as a whole it lags, drags on, and shuffles its feet until the delirious Gothic tension of the original novel is all but lost.

The screenplay sticks remarkably close to the original material. A nameless young woman (Joan Fontaine), the paid companion of a disagreeable old busybody (Florence Bates), falls in love with Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy but emotionally withdrawn widower. Maxim marries the girl and carries her away to his fabulous estate, Manderley, where she encounters the lingering presence of the previous Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, throughout the house, particularly because Rebecca's insanely devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), runs the place as if Rebecca were still there. Little by little, the new Mrs. de Winter uncovers bits and pieces of the first Mrs. de Winter's story, leading to a dramatic revelation from Maxim about Rebecca's true nature and the circumstances of her mysterious death.

The film's fidelity to the novel was something that Selznick insisted upon; the opening credits even identify Rebecca as a "picturization" of the novel. It was a source of conflict between the producer and his director, and it affects the whole film. Hitch wanted to capture the mood of the literature without slavishly recreating it, but Selznick pretty much got his own way, and Rebecca suffers because of that. It is much too long, with too many shots of Joan Fontaine crying and wringing her hands helplessly, and not nearly enough of Mrs. Danvers, who is absolutely the best thing going on in the whole picture. The novel's tension and insidious power stemmed from its deeply subjective, interior perspective of the heroine's thoughts, something that could not be translated onto film. In the novel, the spectral Rebecca exists solely within her replacement's imagination, but there she takes insidious shape, almost possessing the heroine at times. In the adaptation, Rebecca lacks this power; we see her initials and her things, but we don't feel her the way that we do in du Maurier's text. If Selznick had allowed Hitchcock to recreate that delightful paranoid sensibility by changing the screenplay more, it would have made a better movie. As it is, watching Rebecca is a lot like viewing a series of illustrations for the novel; you see the scene but miss what's going on behind it.

None of this is really the fault of the performers, but it limits what they can do. Olivier is too distant and cold by half; he had reportedly wanted Vivien Leigh for the heroine's part, and perhaps his coldness is as much toward Joan Fontaine as it is toward her character. Fontaine's heroine spends most of the movie in tears, cringing awkwardly at every social encounter and adoring Maxim with the irritating enthusiasm of a puppy. It's never clear why we are supposed to believe that Maxim loves her, except perhaps in that she is the opposite of Rebecca. I much prefer Fontaine as the tougher title character in Jane Eyre (1944), an interesting casting choice since the novel Rebecca was itself a revision of Charlotte Bronte's Gothic masterpiece.

In the supporting cast, George Sanders gives a good show as Rebecca's too-intimate friend, Jack Favell, and Florence Bates is perfectly horrid as the heroine's awful employer. The most stirring performance of the whole movie is given by Judith Anderson as the villainous Mrs. Danvers; the terrible light that comes into her eyes when she speaks of the dead Rebecca is truly chilling, and the final scene of Mrs. Danvers in the burning Manderley is terrific, even if it doesn't appear in du Maurier's novel. Anderson's performance helps to set the tone for many Gothic housekeepers to come, and you can definitely see her influence in Rosalie Crutchley's turn as Mrs. Dudley in The Haunting (1963).

Many classic movie fans adore Rebecca, and I'll admit that my familiarity with the novel might be a major factor in my own less enthusiastic response to the film. If you're looking for more Gothic romance, try Dragonwyck (1946) with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. See more of Joan Fontaine in The Women (1939), Suspicion (1941), and Ivanhoe (1952). Olivier is best remembered today for literary films like Wuthering Heights (1939), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Hamlet (1948). For more of the great Judith Anderson, try Laura (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: FURY (1936)

Fury (1936) marks director Fritz Lang's debut as a Hollywood filmmaker, although by the time he arrived in the United States he had already made important films like Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Despite its key position as a transitional work for the director, Fury is not as widely known today as some of Lang's other American pictures, the most popular being his 1953 noir classic, The Big Heat, but Fury is nonetheless an excellent film, filled with gripping performances and all of the director's favorite themes.

Spencer Tracy stars as the ill-fated Joe Wilson, whose long-awaited union with his girl, Katherine (Sylvia Sidney), sets him off on a road trip into tragedy. Mistaken for a kidnapper and tried by local gossip, Joe becomes the victim of a violent mob so intent on murdering him that they burn down their own jail with Joe locked inside. Joe secretly survives the ordeal, but his faith in human decency is shattered, and  he now cares only about getting revenge on the people who tried to kill him. When the court attempts to try the leaders of the mob, the townsfolk close ranks, but Joe manipulates his two brothers and Katherine to affect the outcome of the trial.

For Tracy, the role of Joe bears some similarities to his later performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), where we also see him play two sides of a single personality. The original Joe is a straight arrow, a quintessential good guy who looks after his brothers and takes in a little dog out of sympathy for a helpless fellow creature. The post-fire Joe is a shadow consumed with rage, ready to watch nearly two dozen people die in order to satisfy his need for retribution. Tracy, always a terrific actor, makes both sides of Joe credible, although his craggy features are most effective in the later scenes, when we see him with burning eyes and a grim, pitiless expression. Sidney, with her delicate features and huge, startled eyes, makes a perfect foil to this later version of Joe, even as Lang reveals her to be smart enough to put two and two together, no matter how emotionally wrecked she is in the wake of seeing her beloved burned alive.

Like M, The Woman in the Window (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945), Fury reveals Lang's interest in the psychological, particularly various manifestations of guilt. The lynch mob leaders mostly bury their guilt, except for one memorable courtroom outburst, but Lang relishes the opportunity to confront them with themselves when the district attorney uses film footage of the mob to show what each member did that night. Joe also has to grapple with guilt as it becomes apparent that he will get the vengeance he desires in spades. Can he live with himself if the townspeople die?

In addition to Tracy and Sidney, look for Walter Brennan, Frank Albertson, Bruce Cabot, and Walter Abel among the cast. The biggest star in the whole movie, though, might be Terry, the little dog who plays Rainbow. You know her better as Toto in The Wizard of Oz (1939). For more of Spencer Tracy's best work from the late 1930s, see Libeled Lady (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), and Boys Town (1938). Sylvia Sidney is best remembered today for her role in Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), but she had a long career that included many later television roles.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)

D.W. Griffith's silent Civil War epic is one of those films that every serious student of film probably feels obligated to sit through at some point, but for the modern viewer The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a very hard pill to swallow. Lauded by film critics who praise its technique while deploring its politics, Birth is regarded as a landmark in cinema history, and it's true that the movie was a huge success in its own day and offers a number of visually striking sequences that have become part of film's larger vocabulary. It also more or less single handedly revived the KKK, and it's hard to watch the movie with this knowledge and not wonder how much blood was spilled thanks to the pernicious ideals paraded before viewers' eyes.

Based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation follows the fortunes of two families during and after the Civil War. The Stonemans are the Northern family; their patriarch (Ralph Lewis) becomes a powerful advocate for abolition, partly because of his dangerous relationships with biracial opportunists. The Camerons hail from the South, and the two families are entwined by the love affairs and shared sufferings of their children, including the troubled courtship of Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) and Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish). After the war ends, racial conflict leads to violence and upheaval, leading to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan to help whites reassert their power over the former slave population.

I'm not particularly interested in acting as an apologist for Griffith or Dixon for this maddeningly racist fairy tale of white paradise lost and regained. Many other film critics with much greater credentials, including Roger Ebert, can list the virtues of Griffith's story-telling and his use of cross-cutting, set pieces, and other important machinery of the medium. Yes, the action sequences are well-made and exciting, although at a good three hours the movie is long by anybody's standards, and some of the re-used shots in particular might have been edited to pick up the pace. Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh are lovely and effective, and the other younger characters are also interesting, but the elder Stoneman and the antagonists often devolve into mere caricatures.

Beyond these considerations, however, lies the real problem. Griffith presents a story in which the KKK are the heroes, riding to the rescue of terrified whites as savage, subhuman blacks run riot. If you aren't a member of a white supremacy group, it's horrifically uncomfortable to be asked to cheer, "Here comes the Klan!" when the riders turn up, their white sheets billowing out behind them. One might laugh nervously at the ridiculous situation, or turn the film off in disgust, or watch on with a sick sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach. At that point, the technical merits of the movie disappear from the equation. The message overrides them.

Griffith might not have meant for it to happen, but it remains important that The Birth of a Nation brought the KKK back into the South with a vengeance. It had died out towards the end of the 19th century, and perhaps it would have stayed dead if not for this one picture. That's a terrible example of the impact a film can have on history, given that the rebirth of the KKK certainly led to the deaths of many African-Americans in the South in the first half of the 20th century. According to this PBS article, "In Mississippi alone, 500 blacks were lynched from the 1800s to 1955." Across the South, two to three African-Americans were lynched every week, not in fiction or on movie screens, but in real life, by real men who saw themselves as the saviors of their race. Beyond its offensive stereotypes and blackface antics, Birth has blood on its reels, and no amount of technical innovation can make up for that.

I can't really recommend that you watch The Birth of a Nation unless you are just very committed to checking that box in your film education. You can see a shorter, less repulsive example of Griffith's style in Broken Blossoms (1919), which also stars the luminous Lillian Gish. If you really want to explore the evil side of cinema, you might also subject yourself to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (1935). For a silent Civil War film that avoids these thorny issues while still romanticizing the South, try Buster Keaton's The General (1927).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SHOCK (1946)

Released on DVD under the "Fox Film Noir" banner, Alfred L. Werker's 1946 picture, Shock, properly belongs to the thriller category but can make few claims to true noir status. As a psychological suspense movie starring Vincent Price as an unethical doctor, Shock lacks precisely that quality described by its title, which is too bad, since Price is more than capable of making a memorable picture when given the right material. Those who are interested in the long-running tradition of mental asylum movies might find Shock an amusing contribution, and Price fans will probably want to see it just to check it off the list, but noir purists and general viewers might be better off giving it a pass.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Richard Cross, who has the misfortune to murder his wife while another resident of his hotel is able to see him commit the crime. Luckily for Dr. Cross, the young witness is emotionally stressed military wife Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw), who promptly goes into a state of shock after seeing the murder. Called in to consult on the case, Dr. Cross convinces Janet's husband, Paul (Frank Latimore), to commit her to the care of his own mental hospital, where the not-so good doctor and his scheming mistress (Lynn Bari) attempt to make sure that Janet never recovers enough to tell what she knows.

Price does his best with the role of the morally conflicted Cross, who strangles his wife in a moment of passion but possesses enough humanity to flinch at murdering the defenseless witness. Lynn Bari plays an icy Lady Macbeth to Price's reluctant killer, always urging him on to more outrageous crimes, but she needs to bring more heat to the part for us to understand why Cross would fall under her sway. The supposedly sympathetic young couple fare even worse than the villains. Anabel Shaw's lifeless heroine is one of the weakest points of the film; she doesn't have much personality even before she falls into a catatonic state, and it's hard to root for such a fragile, flat character. As the recently liberated prisoner of war, Frank Latimore's Paul is entirely too clean cut and together, and his concern for his wife never feels particularly pressing. A more insightful story might have done something with the psychological possibilities of a character like Paul, but Shock seems unaware that his mental state ought to be just as fractured as that of Janet or Dr. Cross.

If you're watching Shock, it's probably due to the presence of Vincent Price, who appears to better advantage in films like Laura (1944), Dragonwyck (1946), House of Wax (1953), and The Fly (1958). You'll also find him in Roger Corman's gloriously overdone horror classics, including The Raven (1963). Alfred L. Werker also directed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and He Walked by Night (1948); his career included work on some 50 films from 1928 to 1957. Lynn Bari also appears in Blood and Sand (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944). Look for Anabel Shaw in Gun Crazy (1950), a true noir knockout in every respect. If you like stories about mental asylums and their inmates, try Spellbound (1945), Bedlam (1946), and The Snake Pit (1948).

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941)

Betty Grable is not an actress one normally associates with film noir, but she makes an unusual foray into Dark City in H. Bruce Humberstone's 1941 picture for Fox, I Wake Up Screaming. Nobody ever actually does wake up screaming in the movie, and the ill-chosen title is not the only weakness in evidence, but the picture is watchable and offers an interestingly twisted tale of passion, murder, and suspense.

Grable plays good girl Jill Lynn, whose beautiful and ambitious sister, Vicky (Carole Landis), has just been murdered. The chief suspect in the case is Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a promoter who was helping Vicky become a star, but Frankie insists that he had nothing to do with Vicky's death. Both Frankie and Jill fall under the relentless watch of imposing cop Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who refuses to believe that Frankie might be innocent. As they struggle to find Vicky's real killer, Frankie and Jill must come to grips with their feelings for one another, and their blossoming romance might prove the weakness that finally helps Cornell to pin the crime on Frankie.

The dialogue in I Wake Up Screaming can't compare to that of the real masterpieces of noir, where lines get thrown like so many daggers in a deadly circus act. Double Indemnity (1946) it is not. The film was adapted from a novel by Steve Fisher with the screenplay by Dwight Taylor, who mostly wrote scripts for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but also penned Pickup on South Street (1956), a much more highly regarded example of noir style. There's also an obsessive and rather bizarre use of an instrumental version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for the film's musical backdrop. You'll get tired of hearing it by the time the picture ends.

On the plus side, Laird Cregar is a smoldering menace as the relentless cop, and Elisha Cook, Jr., always great, appears in a small but crucial role. Victor Mature is fun to watch, although his heavy features constantly raise suspicion that he might actually be the killer, and that might be the whole point of casting him in the first place. Carole Landis makes a lovely and cold-hearted foil to Grable's good sister, and Alan Mowbray and Alyn Joslyn have interesting roles as Frankie's slippery friends.

If you like Betty Grable, see her in her natural element in Down Argentine Way (1940) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). You'll find Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine (1946), Kiss of Death (1947), and The Robe (1953). Don't miss Laird Cregar in The Black Swan (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and The Lodger (1944). Elisha Cook, Jr. turns up in all kinds of classic movies, but makes his most memorable appearance in The Maltese Falcon (1941). For more from director Bruce Humberstone, try To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), Wonder Man (1945), or Happy Go Lovely (1951).

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

Books, Movies, and Books about Movies

2012 was an unusually busy year for yours truly, both as a film blogger and as a writer. The Virtual Virago blog is mostly a classic movie review site these days, but I still post the occasional literary or pop culture discussion, as well as conference papers. When I'm not blogging here or writing articles over at Examiner.com, I'm typing away at some project or other. What have I been up to lately? Here's a quick look.

THE COMPLETE NOVELS OF JANE AUSTEN (2013) - Just published by Race Point, this edition has all of the novels plus an introduction written by me. It will probably sell better than anything else I ever work on, but, sadly, my name isn't even in the product information (I feel like Austen in her own lifetime - "By a Lady" and all that). Here's hoping I got a byline in the actual book! The publisher is currently doing a Giveaway on Goodreads if you happen to be a Janeite in need of a lavish, hardcover Valentine for yourself.

BEYOND CASABLANCA: 100 CLASSIC MOVIES WORTH WATCHING (2012) - My darling project, which took three years from start to finish, is the book I am most proud of to date. Writing this collection of reviews was so much fun that I would love to do a second book! I have made so many wonderful friends in the classic movie fan community, and this book has been an attempt to honor those friendships by sharing these wonderful old films with others. The book is now on Kindle for $4.99, which I hope will encourage some new readers to give it a try.


SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (2012) - Barnes & Noble occasionally hires me to write introductions to classic novels, and this one was especially nice to work on because I love Austen and her pop culture cred. The edition they produced is really nice, and I also provided all of the bonus material you'll find inside. Besides, who wouldn't love to see her name on the same page with Jane Austen's?

SHERLOCK HOLMES FOR THE 21st CENTURY (2012) - My usual partner in crime, Anissa Graham, and I co-authored an essay for this McFarland anthology by Lynnette Porter. "Sex and the Single Sleuth" looks at the ways that film and TV adaptations have made Sherlock Holmes sexy, especially in the last few years. Of course, we also talk about Basil Rathbone and the early days of Holmes on film!

THE WIDER WORLDS OF JIM HENSON (2012) - Anissa and I finished editing our second McFarland anthology of essays about the works of Jim Henson, this time widening our scope to include films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and series like Fraggle Rock. We had some wonderful contributors who wrote fascinating essays. I wrote "Fandom and Nostalgia in Disney's The Muppets" and co-wrote "Telling Toy Stories in The Christmas Toy." These anthologies are a lot of work, but we have gotten to know some great scholars from around the world, and hopefully other people find our contributions to Muppet Studies useful.

I've finally gotten to the point where I say, "I'm a writer," when people ask me what I do, and I think I might actually mean it. We'll see what I manage to get done in 2013...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: FORT APACHE (1948)

The classic Western has many moods, but the tone of John Ford's Fort Apache (1948) is decidedly dark. Its clouds gather slowly, relieved sometimes by deceptive moments of gaiety and light, but still the storm comes on. Loosely based on the events of Custer's Last Stand, Fort Apache is technically a John Wayne picture, although Wayne takes a secondary role, while the full weight of hubris and its subsequent punishment fall on the shoulders of Henry Fonda as the doomed colonel who stubbornly leads his men to death.

Fonda plays Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, who arrives with his sprightly daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), at Fort Apache only to upset the balance of the residents' lives. Determined to win glory and prove himself to the world, Thursday ignores the experience and advice of those around him, including the seasoned Captain York (Wayne), and pushes toward a disastrous encounter with the Apache chief, Cochise, and his warriors.

Ford balances comedy and tragedy in his scenes and his actors, reflecting the ebb and flow of ordinary life, even in times of crisis. Without Thursday, the denizens of the fort have formed a benevolent community of friendship and mutual respect, but their new leader soon undermines their peace with his arrogance and contempt. He even forbids his daughter to keep company with the fort's favorite son, although the young lovers persist in their romance in spite of his authority. As Thursday, Fonda gives a brilliantly layered performance; he knows to soften just enough every now and then to keep us hoping that he'll live to see the error of his ways, even though his doom is clearly written on his brow. Temple is pertly pretty as Philadelphia, an energetic rather than an elegant girl, but filled with a pioneer spirit that promises much for her survival in this untamed frontier. Wayne watches the events unfold with a grim recognition of the coming end, but his presence is a comfort to the viewer because we know that he can be trusted when everything else falls apart.

Other supporting players also contribute to the film's powerful effect. Ward Bond is jovial and kind as the O'Rourke family patriarch, and George O'Brien has a particularly moving role as Captain Collingwood. Anna Lee and Irene Rich make the fort's women solid and sympathetic, and Guy Kibbee is very good as the sociable doctor. Ford favorites like Victor McLaglen and Pedro Armendariz also put in reliable character performances. The role of young Michael O'Rourke was the first screen appearance of John Agar, who happened to be married to Shirley Temple at the time. The couple would divorce in 1949, but Agar's acting career continued, and he went on to appear in a number of noteworthy Westerns, including Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Big Jake (1971), as well as many cult sci-fi films.

For more of John Ford's Westerns with John Wayne, see Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Fonda made a number of memorable Westerns, including The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and My Darling Clementine (1946), but you could also explore other sides of the actor in Jezebel (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), and 12 Angry Men (1957). See more of teenage Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), or for contrast catch her earlier work with John Ford in Wee Willie Winkie (1937). With well over 200 screen appearances, the marvelous character actor Ward Bond can be found almost everywhere, from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959), but he was a particular favorite with John Ford, who gave him memorable roles in many of his films.

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

Friday, February 8, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: TENSION (1949)

Noir films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) hover at the very top of our culture's cinematic consciousness, but many of the B movies that helped to define classic noir style have not fared as well. Directed by John Berry, Tension (1949) is a more obscure example of noir, but it remains an extremely entertaining film, in large part because of Audrey Totter's portrayal of an outrageously vicious femme fatale. For those who are new to noir, Tension might well be a perfect primer of the conventions and characters that form its hallmarks, and seasoned aficionados will find much to admire in this short, snappy picture, as well.

Totter dominates the screen as the incorrigible Claire Quimby, a two-timing wife whose boredom with her meek pharmacist husband (Richard Basehart) leads her to look for greener pastures. When Claire runs off with the loutish Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), Warren Quimby vows to take his revenge on Deager and thereby prove himself manly enough to win his wife back. Quimby assumes a new identity in order to facilitate his murderous plans, but he begins to question his decision when his attractive new neighbor (Cyd Charisse) presents him with a second chance at love. After Deager turns up dead, both of the Quimbys must deal with the consequences of their actions and the investigation of a dogged police detective (Barry Sullivan), who senses the tension between them.

Basehart makes for a sympathetic hero, particularly once he wises up to the fact that his wife is no good, and his early scenes as the milquetoast doormat also have their charms. Cyd Charisse, long and lovely, serves as an elegant foil to Totter's heartless vamp, but the audience's attention belongs to the bad girl, nonetheless. Totter really works the image of the femme fatale as a creature of base desires; there is nothing refined or even very mysterious about her. Even the way she eats a sandwich communicates the essential aspects of her character - greedy, crass, and wasteful. Utterly faithless and interested only in material pleasures, she has no patience with her husband's domestic fantasies, although she proves more than willing to use him once Deager turns up dead. In one particularly telling scene, she flatly rejects Warren's hard-earned purchase of a family home, scorning the roles of mother and wife that he assumes she must desire. Unwillingly even to leave the car, she drowns out his mild protestations with the vulgar blast of the auto horn. In every scene, she's delightfully horrid, trampy, and false, making it that much more awful that a nice guy like Warren is seriously planning to murder another man just to get her back.

Director John Berry also helmed the John Garfield noir, He Ran All the Way (1951). You'll find Richard Basehart in other noir films like He Walked by Night (1948) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), as well as in Federico Fellini's masterpiece, La Strada (1954). Cyd Charisse is better remembered for her dancing in musicals like The Harvey Girls (1946), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and Brigadoon (1954). For more of the fabulous Audrey Totter, see The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), The Unsuspected (1947), and The Set-Up (1949).

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

Monday, February 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

Screwball comedy director Preston Sturges offers a frothy concoction in The Palm Beach Story (1942). It's a light, short film, daring for its day in its treatment of the idea that an attractive woman might willingly use her sex appeal to advance her husband's career. The dialogue is witty, and the characters are certainly charming, but those who are bothered by loose ends will have fits over the way in which the movie leaves much unsaid and even more unexplained in its opening and closing scenes.

Our story involves a young married couple, Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert), whose marriage isn't going so well because Tom has yet to get his big break and Gerry is tired of being poor. Gerry decides to help Tom out by divorcing him so that she can romance rich lovers and bankroll Tom's idea for a revolutionary airport design. Despite Tom's confusion over how exactly this is supposed to be a swell plan, Gerry takes off for Palm Beach to get a divorce, proving along the way that she can in fact charm men into giving her just about anything she wants. Her most devoted victim is an alarmingly wealthy bachelor named John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who falls hard for Gerry in short order. Tom pursues his wife to Florida, where Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor) promptly conceives a passion for him, and the four besotted characters run around making fools of themselves until everything eventually gets sorted out, thanks to a deus ex machina so wild and so unaccounted for that it will either make you roar with laughter or tear your hair out in frustration.

The cast assembled for this trip to the loony bin is first rate. Colbert is lovely enough to sell the idea that men might fall all over themselves for her benefit, and Joel McCrea excels at comic reaction shots where he gapes open-mouthed in disbelief at the extent of his wife's zany endeavors. Rudy Vallee gets high marks for his amiable blueblood, and Mary Astor is a scream as the loopy sister. Even the secondary players bring plenty of laughs; Robert Dudley gets the movie off to a hilarious start as the generous Wienie King, whose inspection of the couple's apartment sets the plot in motion. Later, we get a whole club car of humorous characters with the Ale and Quail Club, who gallantly give Gerry a ticket so that she can board the train to Palm Beach. William Demarest, Victor Potel, Robert Warwick, Chester Conklin, Arthur Stuart Hull, Sheldon Jett, Dewey Robinson, Jimmy Conlin, Jack Norton, Torben Meyer, Robert Greig, and Roscoe Ates pack the train scenes with their drunken conviviality. A lot of these old character actors were regulars in Preston Sturges' pictures, and the director clearly takes great delight in their antics, literally setting them loose on the unsuspecting passengers and train crew until they eventually end up being set loose in a different way by the conductors.

It is difficult to say much about the beginning and ending of the movie without spoiling it, but it doesn't take two minutes to figure out that The Palm Beach Story opens with a scene from a completely different tale, one that won't be addressed in the scenes that follow. Who is the woman tied up in the closet? Why are both the bride and groom late for the wedding? What the heck is going on? I don't think Sturges means to torture his audience with these mystifying bookends to the main plot; I think that the title's wording is supposed to suggest that this is merely yet another story in the lives of these wild characters, and the beginning and ending show that the Palm Beach adventure is neither the first nor the last time that Tom and Gerry will find themselves doing crazy things. Like the television series Friends, where every episode is titled, "The One...," The Palm Beach Story is one story among many stories for our protagonists, with the only problem being that the other stories never actually get told. Personally, I would have liked to see the story that led up to the film's opening scenes; the comedic possibilities suggested there are marvelous.

If you enjoy The Palm Beach Story, you should certainly try out other Preston Sturges films, especially The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). For more comedy with Claudette Colbert, try It Happened One Night (1934), Midnight (1939),  and The Egg and I (1947). See Joel McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The More the Merrier (1943), and Ride the High Country (1962). Mary Astor is best remembered today as the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but you'll also find her in The Great Lie (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). See more of Rudy Vallee in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Sturges' darker comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

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

Classic Films in Focus: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

Before the time-crossed lovers of Somewhere in Time (1980) and The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), there was Portrait of Jennie (1948), a romantic fantasy produced by David O. Selznick and directed by William Dieterle. Like the more recent films, Portrait of Jennie tells the story of a couple who are both separated and brought together due to the irregular workings of time; the film also delves into questions about the nature of fate and artistic inspiration, but it is primarily a love story, more melodrama than science fiction. With a noteworthy cast of supporting players and reasonably successful performances from its two leads, Portrait of Jennie is a good picture if not a great one, although its chief attraction might be the visual creativity with which the story is told.

Joseph Cotten stars as Eben Adams, a struggling painter in New York City who seems to lack real inspiration for his art. One day he meets a strange young girl (Jennifer Jones); she introduces herself as Jennie Appleton, but her stories all involve people and places from years ago. Each time Adams meets her again, it seems as if years have passed, and Jennie says that she is "hurrying" to grow up so that he will fall in love with her. Of course he eventually does just that, but Jennie's fate may already be sealed by events that unfolded long before.

Portrait of Jennie won an Oscar for its special effects and was nominated for its cinematography, and those aspects of the picture remain its chief attractions. The violent storm that dominates the film's climax is particularly memorable, but beautiful set pieces throughout the film highlight its artistic themes. The imagery, however, is ultimately more exciting than the performances of Jones and Cotten, although they do have some good moments, particularly toward the end of the film. The supporting players, including Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, and Lillian Gish, prove more interesting, but each plays a relatively small role, and other pictures showcase their talents more fully. Once the movie ends, its images will stay in the mind long after the characters' actions fade, leaving one with a sense of having seen a series of lovely paintings more so than a motion picture. The impression it makes is agreeable if not particularly strong, although viewers who enjoy old-fashioned romances will probably find much to love. Certainly art lovers ought to appreciate Dieterle's cinematic vision and Cotten's portrayal of an artist in search of his muse.

Director William Dieterle earned his only Oscar nomination for directing with The Life of Emile Zola (1937), but he is also remembered today for his work on films like A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). You'll find Joseph Cotten in truly great films like Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Third Man (1949). Jennifer Jones won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943), but she also had memorable roles in Duel in the Sun (1946), Madame Bovary (1949), and Carrie (1952). For more romantic fantasy, try The Enchanted Cottage (1945),  Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

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

Friday, February 1, 2013

Laugh and the World Laughs with You: Preston Sturges and the Social Side of Film

Today I began a new First Fridays Film Festival series for the LearningQUEST lifetime learning program at the local library. This term we are looking at the films of Preston Sturges, the writer and director who produced classic comedies like The Great McGinty (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and Sullivan's Travels (1941). There are 90 people signed up for the course this term, the most I've ever had, but I think about 60-70 actually showed up today. Watching the movie with the group reminded me of one of Sturges' most important lessons, the value of comedy as a communal experience.

Most of my students had never heard of Sturges, much less seen The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), which was today's selection. A brief introduction gave them an overview of the film and its notable aspects, especially its thwarting of the Hays Code. I wanted them to understand why the movie was funny beyond the obvious pratfalls and gags, but I didn't try to oversell it or analyze it too much beforehand. I like to let the film speak for itself as much as possible.

Hearing the audience laugh throughout the movie was absolutely the best moment of my entire week. They chuckled, snorted, and guffawed through the whole film. It reminded me of the scene in Sullivan's Travels where Joel McCrea realizes that people need to laugh and that laughter is essentially a communal experience. What a wonderful thing to be able to share!

It's always fun to show classic movies to an audience, but these are the moments I love most. Thanks, Preston Sturges, wherever you are, for the gift of laughter and the chance to share it.