Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937)

John Ford, best known as the director of masterful Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), seems an odd choice for a Shirley Temple feature, but the story that actually unfolds in Wee Willie Winkie (1937) plays on many of Ford's favorite themes. Darker and more mature than most of Temple's childhood movies, Wee Willie Winkie might not appeal to youngsters as much as some of her other films, but it makes worthwhile viewing for adult fans of either the director or the star.

Priscilla Williams (Temple) and her widowed mother, Joyce (June Lang), arrive in colonial India to live with Priscilla's grandfather, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith). Priscilla, nicknamed Private Winkie by the soldiers, befriends both the burly Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen) and the captured rebel leader, Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), while her mother falls for a handsome lieutenant (Michael Whalen). A treacherous spy, however, helps Khoda Khan escape and puts Priscilla in the middle of a deadly confrontation between the British soldiers and the rebel troops.

The film's most important relationship is that developed between Priscilla and MacDuff, who proves far more paternal than any of the other men in the little girl's life. McLaglen gives his character tremendous appeal, and his death part way through the film highlights the adult nature of the story. If your children aren't ready for Bambi (1942), then they aren't ready for Wee Willie Winkie, either. Most Temple films build on a tragic backstory that is already in the heroine's past, but these offscreen events generally pass over the heads of young viewers without much observation. With the death of MacDuff, Ford brings the child protagonist's experience of loss right into the foreground, and, while it works beautifully, it left my resident junior film fan so traumatized that she almost refused to watch the rest of the picture.

The secondary plots fall short of this emotional power. The budding romance between Priscilla's mother and the lieutenant lacks heart, partly because Michael Whalen is awfully dull. It doesn't help that charismatic Cesar Romero is there as an unrealized alternative; a story in which Joyce fell in love with him might have been really interesting. Chinese actor Willie Fung makes an especially ridiculous and unpalatable traitor; he had appeared with Temple in Stowaway (1936), but nobody is going to believe he's Indian for a second, and his character seems to be something of a lunatic to boot.

John Ford directed Temple again in the 1948 film, Fort Apache, which makes a good follow-up to Wee Willie Winkie and also features Victor McLaglen. If colonial India proves appealing, see Gunga Din (1939), which also stars McLaglen as a British soldier, this time in company with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. You'll find Cesar Romero playing another Indian character in Temple's signature film, The Little Princess (1939). For more of Temple's most compelling early work, see Bright Eyes (1934), Captain January (1936), and Heidi (1937).

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

Classic Films in Focus: KEY LARGO (1948)

One expects certain things from Bogart and Bacall: screen melting chemistry, sassy lines, the heady mix of cigarettes and sex appeal. We get these things in spades in pictures like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), but Key Largo (1948) lacks that scintillating sizzle between its two stars, making the picture something of a disappointment for devoted fans of classic Hollywood's most iconic couple. Still, Key Largo has its charms, particularly for those who appreciate Edward G. Robinson, and the film makes an interesting counterpoint to The Petrified Forest (1936), which had made Humphrey Bogart a star.

When Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) arrives in Key Largo, there's a storm brewing both within and without the hotel he has come to visit. McCloud wants to fulfill a wartime obligation to a dead comrade, but in searching out the soldier's father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow (Lauren Bacall) he finds them facing more trouble than mere grief. It turns out that a group of gangsters has taken up residence in the hotel; their leader is the notorious Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a former big man who plans to be big again, even if he has to leave Key Largo littered with bodies to do it. The arrival of a hurricane only makes matters worse, with the tension building as the gangsters and their hostages ride out the storm.

Bogart and Bacall are both restrained in this film; they don't deliver the tart one-liners and smoldering glances that mark their performances in their other pairings. Partly this is due to their characters: Bogart's McCloud is a man with too much honor to make eyes at his dead friend's wife, and Bacall is too good a wife to forget her fallen hero so easily. A steamy love affair would be unpatriotic at best, given the two characters' situations. As a result, their relationship on the screen plays out more like a cordial friendship than a romance. Director John Huston must have felt that the story required this approach, but still it leaves the viewer somewhat unsatisfied, given the mythic power of the stars' celebrated onscreen chemistry.

The heat and the excitement come from the other couple in Key Largo, Johnny Rocco and his faded flame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). They make a nasty, pathetic pair; Rocco is clearly a sadist, and Gaye is just desperate enough to put up with everything that Rocco dishes out. In one particularly memorable scene, Rocco forces the alcoholic Gaye to sing for a drink and then denies her the coveted reward when he finds her performance lacking. Claire Trevor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role, and she really is the most interesting person in the entire movie, a fuller, more complicated character than either of the more upright protagonists or the utterly loathsome Rocco. The moral ambiguity that defines her character from the beginning of the film evolves into something much more certain by the climax, but she's the only really dynamic character that Key Largo has to offer, and that gives her the viewer's sympathy and attention in a way that neither Bogart nor Bacall can command.

You might appreciate Key Largo more if you start by watching The Petrified Forest, the 1936 picture that proved to be Bogart's breakout role. In the earlier film, Bogart plays the gangster to Leslie Howard's world weary wanderer, while Key Largo has Bogart now in the Howard role to Robinson's thug. There's a kind of full circle vibe at work between the two pictures, with a number of other parallels - like the enclosed spaces in which they occur - helping to put them in dialogue with one another in some interesting ways. In Maxwell Anderson's original stage version of Key Largo, the McCloud character died, but Huston's version bears very little resemblance to the unsuccessful play. Still, there's a sense of fate that hangs over the screen version of McCloud, and one could easily imagine a different ending to the film. Seeing the climax of The Petrified Forest helps to sharpen the viewer's understanding of how Key Largo might have played out instead.

Edward G. Robinson makes a great bad guy, a role he played often during his long career. Johnny Rocco is one of his better performances in the gangster vein; watch the way he whispers lasciviously into Lauren Bacall's ear. If you enjoy Robinson's work, be sure to catch Little Caesar (1931), Double Indemnity (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945). Claire Trevor earned additional Best Supporting Actress nominations for Dead End (1937) and The High and the Mighty (1954), but she also has memorable roles in Stagecoach (1939) and Murder, My Sweet (1944). Try Dark Passage (1947) for more of Bogart and Bacall, or see Bogart by himself in Dead Reckoning (1947) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). John Huston also directed several of Bogart's biggest films, but for contrast try The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Confessions of a Classic Movie Blogger

I live in Huntsville, Alabama, where the big blogging news right now involves a local reporter who lost her job after posting "Confessions of a Red-Headed Reporter" about her less-than-professional practices. The story seems to be going viral, and the reporter appeared on the Today Show this morning, which just goes to show how bad behavior can get you all the attention you crave if you just behave badly in a public enough forum.

I don't really blog about myself. I'm not nearly as interesting as the classic movies I write about here at Virtual Virago, and I generally prefer to keep the focus on the films. Still, it seems a shame to pass up an opportunity to make a few classic movie confessions while the topic is hot, and my fellow Rocket City Bloggers are having a ball writing their own posts. So here goes.

Confessions of a Classic Movie Blogger

1) I start every movie hoping I'll really like it. Even when a movie lets me down, I try to say something good about it in my review. Every film has its fans, after all, and there must be some reason people like a movie even when I don't. For that reason you won't often see me pan a film outright, even though a lot of reviewers get more traffic from bashing pictures than they do for praising them.

2) I love classic Westerns, but I don't like Sam Peckinpah. He's just too violent and depressing for me. Give me John Ford, Anthony Mann, Henry Hathaway, and Delmer Daves any day. I don't like Quentin Tarantino, either. I love classic movies because I don't really want to be horrified and disgusted by the things I watch, and graphic sexual violence against women tops my list of things I don't want to see. Sam and Quentin will have to entertain other people with stronger stomachs for that sort of thing.

3) I have a pathetically low ranking on iCheckMovies. I just can't make myself care enough to sit through the 3 hour violent testosterone fests that make all the top movie lists, so I hover around 1800-1900 in the rankings. I can watch a dozen movies in a row without any of them being on a single list. Sometimes I have a highly ranked movie in one hand and a 1930s musical comedy in the other, and I end up picking the musical every time. One of these days, I tell myself, I'll slog through all of those depressing foreign dramas and man movies, but right now I'm just too busy with Jean Harlow, Mickey Rooney, and Doris Day.

4) I keep David Thomson's Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films next to my bed at all times. Yes, I really do, and I pick it up and read entries in it any time I have trouble sleeping. I don't always agree with him, but I do find Thomson highly readable, and I love picking through his entries for all of the films from a single year or starring a particular lead. I think he gets bogged down in the technical aspects sometimes, but I like the way he sums up films without needing to tell everything about them. I wish more classic movie bloggers understood that the key to a great review is to give the reader just enough to think about, not a scene-by-scene summary that gives everything away.

5) I love genre films, even cheesy ones. If it comes from Hammer, stars Bela Lugosi, or involves Roger Corman, I'll watch it, and I'll probably love it. There's a difference between a great MOVIE and a great FILM, and I enjoy a fun movie even if the plot is ridiculous and the strings are showing. William Castle? Heck, yes. Val Lewton? Bring it! Old horror and science fiction movies are some of my very favorites, and I never get tired of watching them.

6) I don't get Turner Classic Movies. I love everything about TCM, but I don't have cable. I buy their DVD collections and books, though, and one of these days I hope to attend the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood. It's on my bucket list. I get access to the movies I write about by buying them, renting them through Netflix, or streaming them. Warner Archive Instant is my current favorite thing on earth next to cupcakes and ice cream. If TCM ever starts a streaming service I'll probably never leave the couch again.

7) I wish I knew how to promote my classic movie guide and blog without being a pain about it. I'm a terrible salesperson, and it turns out that self-promotion is kind of essential to success in the indie publishing and blogging worlds. Sure, I want people to buy my book and read my blog, but I don't want to annoy them into doing it. Speaking of which, if you're reading this post, thanks! By the way, did you know about my book? I hear it makes a swell gift for movie buffs...

8) I take notes when I watch movies. Most people just sit down and enjoy a movie, but to me every one is a text, and I spent too many years in graduate school to resist the urge to take notes. I have a huge binder full of notes; sometimes I draw sketches of characters or scenes to remind me of something I liked about a costume or a camera angle. Sometimes I don't have a chance to write a review until later, and then the notes help me remember what happened and what I wanted to talk about. I never write a review of a movie without watching the whole thing carefully, unlike famous film critic Rex Reed, who recently got into trouble for panning a picture he didn't actually watch.

9) In my other life, I was an English professor. Before I began blogging and writing "full-time," I taught English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville for 14 years. I have a PhD in 18th-century British Literature with a focus on feminist criticism and theory. I left academe for a number of different reasons, but I loved teaching and researching and writing, and blogging about classic movies is a way to keep doing those things. My film reviews often refer to literary terms and texts, and because of my scholarly background I pay a lot of attention to the movie as a narrative. I like to talk about themes, characters, symbols, and other elements that lie at the heart of the English major's work.

10) I love what I do! No, it doesn't make money, and sometimes it feels like nobody is listening, but I keep at it because I enjoy doing it. Having something to be passionate about and having something to write every day gives my life purpose. I like having work to do, and this is the kind of work I have always relished. There are plenty of talented and more successful classic movie bloggers out there. I know I'm not inventing the wheel, but I'm having a great time, and if a handful of people find new classic movies to enjoy because of me then I'll call that a win.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: TWO SMART PEOPLE (1946)

Before she was Ricky Ricardo’s wacky wife, Lucille Ball had a different career as an up-and-coming leading lady on the big screen. She never became as big a star there as she would on television, but Ball made several pictures that are still worth watching today, including the crime romance mash-up Two Smart People (1946). Directed by Jules Dassin, this minor classic offers an interesting mix of genres but is carried mostly by the performances of Ball and her toothy costar, John Hodiak. Fans of caper stories and con men will appreciate Two Smart People for its larcenous protagonists, while cinephiles will enjoy seeing Ball, Hodiak, and a supporting cast that includes Lloyd Nolan and Elisha Cook, Jr.

Ball plays attractive lady swindler Ricki Woodner, who gets involved with fellow con artist Ace Connors (Hodiak) at the behest of mutual acquaintance Fly Feletti (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Fly wants to get his hands on a stack of bonds stolen by Ace, but so does law man Bob Simms (Lloyd Nolan), who is taking Ace by train to New York and prison. Ricki tags along on the trip, which includes stopovers in Mexico and New Orleans, but her developing attraction to Ace complicates her efforts to make off with the bonds.

Despite her reputation as a comedienne, Lucille Ball could be as gorgeous and classy as any leading lady of her era, and she makes a good match for Hodiak and his carnivorous grin. Both actors know their way around the wised up attitudes of career criminals who are much better at lying than they are at telling the truth, even when falling in love. Their dishonest habits both bring them together and divide them, and much of the romance builds upon the problems of two untrustworthy people trying to come clean about themselves and their feelings for each other. The story underlines its themes of penitence and redemption by situating the last third of the action in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, where Ace describes his impending prison term as the Lent that follows a last wild night of self-indulgence.

The romance is further complicated by the presence of Bob as an unusual third wheel, given that Ace is technically under arrest the whole trip. Lloyd Nolan plays Bob as a perfectly straight arrow, which actually makes him subtly funny, and his mild demeanor keeps him likeable in spite of his kill-joy role as jailer. We like Ace because he’s more fun, but we never dislike Bob, partly because Ace clearly respects and likes his opponent, too. Bob’s opposite is Elisha Cook, Jr. as the devious, thoroughly nasty Fly, who threatens Ricki to keep her working for him and then resorts to more deadly efforts during the dramatic Mardi Gras climax. These two supporting characters represent the polar opposites of good and evil, law and chaos, with Ricki and Ace existing somewhere in between. The narrative’s insistence that the lovers pay for their past sins makes for something of a downer ending, but we’re meant to understand that they’ll come out on the other side worthy of having a new life together. The end result is basically a morality play, but there’s enough entertainment to make the dose palatable to most viewers.

For more romantic criminals, try Trouble in Paradise (1932), To Catch a Thief (1955), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Jules Dassin, known mostly for his work with film noir, also directed The Naked City (1948), Night and the City (1950), and Rififi (1955). See more of Lucille Ball’s big screen roles in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), The Dark Corner (1946), and Lured (1947). John Hodiak stars in Lifeboat (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Battleground (1949), and you'll also find him paired with Lloyd Nolan in Somewhere in the Night (1946). Elisha Cook, Jr. turns up everywhere from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to House on Haunted Hill (1959), while Lloyd Nolan takes the title role in Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940) and its many sequels.

Two Smart People is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Laird Cregar at 100

July 28, 2013, marks the 100th birthday of classic Fox star Laird Cregar, one of my favorite lesser-known actors and the protagonist of one of Hollywood's most tragic stories. Cregar had been pegged by the studio as a heavy because of his large size and his air of hedonistic debauchery, but the actor longed for leading man status and was willing to take drastic measures to show that he could fit the studio's image of a romantic lead. He dropped 100 pounds and presented himself in a very different light in his final film, Hangover Square (1945), but the strain of his physical transformation resulted in a fatal heart attack, and Cregar died before the picture was released. He was only 31 years old, with a brilliant career ahead of him, and had he lived Cregar might have proved a true rival to his friend, Vincent Price.

Here are a few of my favorite Cregar performances -

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) - Cregar plays the Devil in this romantic comedy from Ernst Lubitsch. He doesn't have a lot of scenes with star Don Ameche, but he makes every one of them count, and Cregar's Devil is a jolly -  if slightly sinister - fellow, a laughing demon who doesn't really seem to wish his guest eternal damnation at all.

CHARLEY'S AUNT (1941) - With Jack Benny as the cross-dressing star, Cregar plays an older man who tries to court Benny in his widow's disguise. Ironically, Cregar's son in the movie, James Ellison, was actually three years older than Cregar!

BLOOD AND SAND (1941) - In this sweeping Spanish epic, Cregar plays a smug bullfight critic who can make or break careers with a wave of his pen. Cregar cuts Tyrone Power down as viciously as a gored bull, but the real threat to Ty's ambitious bullfighter is the seductive Rita Hayworth.

THE LODGER (1944) - Cregar takes on the Jack the Ripper role in this creepy thriller starring Merle Oberon and George Sanders. As dangerous as his killer is, Cregar invests him with a strange sympathy that fascinates both the audience and Oberon's heroine.

HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) - Although he didn't live to see it, Cregar gives a tour de force performance in his final film, building on the pitiable monster created in THE LODGER. His transformation scenes from nice guy to killer require no makeup or special effects, just Cregar's own ability to show his protagonist crossing over to the dark side at the sound of a particular tone.

Cregar also makes memorable appearances in I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941), THE BLACK SWAN (1942), and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). Honor his memory and his passion for stardom by catching a few of his movies this week.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932)

Red-Headed Woman (1932) mixes drama and comedy in its story of a relentless gold digger who sleeps her way up the social ladder, with Jean Harlow starring as the title character. Despite her reputation as a platinum blonde, Harlow goes red to play the sexpot siren in this Pre-Code picture directed by Jack Conway. Her costars include Chester Morris, Leila Hyams, Una Merkel, Lewis Stone, and Henry Stephenson, but the picture belongs wholly to Harlow and her scheming anti-heroine, a Prohibition Becky Sharp who’ll stop at nothing to get the wealth and status she desires. With its scandalous affairs and amoral protagonist, Red-Headed Woman is a perfect example of Pre-Code style, although Harlow’s character is so vicious a homewrecker that viewers may find her very hard to like.

Harlow plays Lil Andrews, an office girl with her eye on her married boss, Bill (Chester Morris). When Bill’s wife, Irene (Leila Hyams), leaves town for a few days, Lil makes her move and succeeds in busting up the marriage. Lil then tries to break into Bill’s society circle, taking her pal Sally (Una Merkel) along, but Bill’s family and friends prove much harder to win over. Undaunted, Lil plays a duplicitous game by seducing both Bill’s friend, Charles (Henry Stephenson), and Charles’ French chauffeur, Albert (Charles Boyer).

The role of the sexual adventuress puts Harlow’s raw sex appeal on full display, and there’s certainly plenty of her to admire on camera, even when she’s fully dressed. Her ample curves always suggest nakedness, even beneath the cover of her clingy, transparent gowns. It’s little wonder that every man she meets succumbs to her charms, even though her approach is so aggressive that it’s really more a full frontal assault than a seduction. Lil possesses none of the fresh, feisty sweetness that marks Harlow’s best roles, and the plot has no interest whatsoever in her moral development or redemption. Poor Irene gets blamed for not fighting harder to keep her man, but it’s impossible to root for Lil when Irene so obviously occupies the moral high ground as the injured and insulted wife. If Lil doesn’t end the picture as a murderess on death row, it’s not for lacking of trying on her part.

The supporting cast includes frequent Harlow gal pal Una Merkel as the comic relief, although mostly she’s there to gasp in shock at Lil’s outrageous behavior. Lewis Stone and Henry Stephenson are both solid as the older men, although Chester Morris’ Bill is such a spineless sap that we wonder why Irene wants him back. Leila Hyams, however, makes a perfect foil to Harlow as the cultured, elegant Irene, a cool blonde whose beauty has nothing to do with sex. May Robson has a fun role as Irene’s Aunt Jane, and Charles Boyer is obviously Lil’s natural match as the handsome chauffeur who dallies with her right under his boss’ nose.

For a different take on the Pre-Code sexual adventuress, try Baby Face (1933). You’ll find Harlow playing more sympathetic characters in Bombshell (1933), The Girl from Missouri (1934), and Saratoga (1937), with more direction on the latter two from Jack Conway, who also directed Harlow in Libeled Lady (1936). Chester Morris earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Alibi (1929), but he also played Boston Blackie in a long series of films and did a lot of television work late in his career. See more of Una Merkel, a great comedic character actress, in Destry Rides Again (1939) and It’s a Joke, Son! (1947). The screenplay for Red-Headed Woman was written by Anita Loos, whose other credits include several Harlow films and classics like San Francisco (1936) and The Women (1939). Loos also wrote the original 1926 novel version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which would help to create the lasting image of another iconic blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, when it was adapted as a film in 1953.

Red-Headed Woman is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: NIGHT FLIGHT (1933)

Directed by Clarence Brown, Night Flight (1933) offers another example of the large ensemble MGM drama epitomized by Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), this time set against the first perilous attempts at nocturnal aviation across South America. The cast includes a full roster of top stars, including John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, and Myrna Loy, but the film ends up being less than the sum of its parts. While Night Flight is worth a look by serious fans of its stars, those expecting a production equal to the more famous ensemble pictures will be disappointed. It is, however, a provocative picture for those fascinated by flight, with thrilling aerial photography that is sure to give nightmares to nervous fliers.

John Barrymore stars as Riviere, the iron will behind a venture to deliver overnight mail across the deadly South American continent. With death-defying pilots played by Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and William Gargan, Riviere fights both the elements and his own board of directors to get the first batch of mail delivered on schedule. The women in the pilots’ lives question the value of their sacrifice, but the audience knows that the night’s mail includes desperately needed serum to treat an outbreak of polio in Rio de Janeiro.

Despite its stellar cast, Night Flight never gets off the ground as a character drama because most of its actors spend their screen time isolated from one another, unable to interact or do much more than look stricken or determined, depending on where they happen to be. Gable is particularly wasted as the pilot Jules Fabian, while Helen Hayes is left to over emote at his photograph as Fabian’s wife. Myrna Loy doesn’t even turn up until very late in the film, and she really only has one scene. Robert Montgomery comes off better as the lucky Pellerin, who lives through his white-knuckled flight to enjoy a few very good scenes on the ground, especially as he marvels at his own survival and his safe return to terra firma. The lion’s share of the screen time belongs to the Barrymore brothers, who do have some very dramatic moments together, although Lionel seems to be using an implacable itch to upstage John every chance he gets. Most of the actors, however, simply don’t get the chance to demonstrate the considerable talents that we know they possess.

Their isolation, troublesome as it is, is intentional, since the story focuses on the lonely lives of the pilots and the women who love them. The Barrymore characters are also profoundly lonely men, so much so that John’s Riviere envies Lionel’s Robineau for having a constant companion in his itch. The movie succeeds at depicting this loneliness most poetically and effectively with its aerial photography and scenes of communal life unfolding on the ground. The pilots, cut off from the people who watch them fly overhead, exist in a phantom zone of darkness, storms, and cloud-wrapped mountain peaks. Their women sit at home and wait, equally alone with their hopes and fears. All around them, humanity goes on, but each of our central characters lives a suspended life, imprisoned in cockpits, offices, and apartments as surely as if they were iron cells. As a philosophical exercise, the theme works very well, but it simply doesn’t make the best use of the cast on offer.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote the original novel on which Night Flight is based, is best remembered today as the author The Little Prince. For more films from director Clarence Brown, try Wife vs. Secretary (1936), National Velvet (1944), and Angels in the Outfield (1951). Aviation movies were popular throughout the 1930s; see Hell’s Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1938), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) for more examples of the type. Clark Gable also stars as a pilot in Test Pilot (1938), with Myrna Loy and Lionel Barrymore as two of his costars. The Barrymore brothers only made one picture with sister Ethel, Rasputin and the Empress (1932); of the three, Lionel was by far the most prolific, with over 200 film credits to his name. He won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in A Free Soul (1931), but he is best known today as mean Mr. Potter in the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Be sure to see Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933) for more of the brothers’ collaborative work.

Night Flight is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant, and a DVD version is also available on Amazon and from other retailers.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why I Write About Classic Movies

I spent the morning today talking to prospective students for my upcoming Spencer Tracy film series for LearningQUEST, a local lifetime learning program. I have been teaching these courses for several years now, and it's always great to have people return each term for another series and the chance to watch old movies together. Talking with new and returning course members reminded me why I love classic movies and write about them here on my blog.

I love them for themselves, of course. I'm a narrative scholar from way back, and a good story is the ultimate attraction for me. Classic movies tend to focus more on the story than our modern blockbusters, which mostly seem to be written by committees determined to sacrifice plot and character in favor of big special effects that will track well in the overseas box office. Give me a nuanced plot with smart dialogue and a loaded subtext any day; I'll always take Billy Wilder over Michael Bay, thanks very much.

I love them for their stars, too. "We had faces then," brags Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and, boy, was she right. Classic movies have stars like very few that we see today; partly that's because of the studio system that created and maintained their public personae, but partly it's because the kinds of movies being made - smart, dialogue-driven productions that were character-oriented and intended for adults of both sexes - demanded a different caliber of star. Classic movies have Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. Even silent movie stars beat the pants off the green screen newcomers we have today. Watch Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, for example, and you'll never be impressed by modern CGI action movies again.

Talking with the LearningQUEST members about their favorite stars and movies also reminded me that I love these older films for the connection they create between generations. I have always spent a lot of time around people who were older than myself, and even now in my early 40s I am drawn to hang out with people in their 70s and 80s. (It was an extra pleasure to be referred to as a "pretty young girl" today by one of my regulars!) Often my students in these courses will tell me about the first time they saw a particular classic, or an encounter they had with a star, or their own memories of an event being portrayed in a film that we watch, and I really treasure those conversations. I also love to find young classic movie fans on Twitter and other social media; it gives me hope for the future to know that there are 17 year olds out there who are watching John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Preston Sturges, and Chaplin. How heartening it would be to get those 17 year olds and 75 year olds in the same room and see them all laugh at Sullivan's Travels!

I write about classic movies here on Virtual Virago because they are important to me. In them I find narratives worth thinking about, stars worth watching, and stories worth sharing with others. They aren't "just movies." They are records of our history and culture, collaborative works of art, statements about the meaning and value of the human experience. I hope that other people appreciate what I write, but my chief goal is to draw attention to the films themselves, to help people appreciate them and find new films they might not have seen or even heard of before. That's probably why most other classic movie bloggers write, too. We do it for the love of cinema, for the sake of the films and what they mean to us. We do it because Spence and Kate, Bette and Errol, Fred and Ginger, and all those other lights that filled the Hollywood sky, have reached out to us from across time and space to offer something meaningful and precious that enriches our lives.

Who wouldn't want to write about an experience like that? 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Putting on a Show: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland

Note: This post is part of the Dynamic Duos Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Visit the host sites for complete lists of all of the great blogs participating in this event!

Looking back, they seem like such different Hollywood creatures: Mickey Rooney, so resilient and tough that in 2013 he’s still with us after more than 300 film and television appearances, and Judy Garland, a bright but fragile star who blazed through fewer than 40 roles before her tragically premature death in 1969. Together, though, they made nine films and ruled the screen as one of the most popular Hollywood duos of the classic era, beginning with Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry in 1937 and ending in 1948 with Words and Music.

What made Rooney and Garland such a hit with audiences? It had - and still has - a lot to do with their youth and the fresh-faced, innocent quality of their onscreen chemistry. At their best, in films like Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940), their romantic attraction has a sweetness wholly unassociated with sex. Theirs is a puppy love, eager, sentimental, and simply told if they can just get themselves to grow up enough to say it. They are the boy and the girl next door, denizens of an unfallen age, where putting on a show can solve almost any problem life can dish out.

When they made their first film together in 1937, Garland was still a relative newcomer, but Rooney was already a big star, thanks to his breakthrough title role in the Mickey McGuire shorts and performances in feature films like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937). The lead in the first Andy Hardy film, A Family Affair (1937), helped to propel him to even greater fame, and from 1939 to 1941 the short, boyish star was the top box office actor in the country.

Judy’s own star was rising in those years, especially after the huge success of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She had become part of the Andy Hardy cast with Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938, and she went on to appear with Rooney in two more of the Hardy films: Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941). Andy Hardy, however, already had his primary love interest in Polly Benedict, played by Ann Rutherford, so Garland’s Betsy Booth generally pined in vain for Andy’s affection.

In the “show” pictures the pair really got to demonstrate their compatibility, dancing, singing, plotting, and laughing together as various characters who stage musical revues to save their families, themselves, or their schools. Mickey possesses an almost manic energy in these movies, with big gags, wild dance routines, and crazy costumes. Judy, wide-eyed and adorable, does not yet reveal the toll her fame would take, and her musical performances seem almost effortless.

Judy’s characters tend to be the sincerer and more sensible ones, while Mickey’s hot-blooded young fellows often need to be reminded of the core values of friendship, honesty, and integrity. When MGM varies that formula, as they do in Girl Crazy (1943), things can go a bit off the rails, but when they get it just right in the earlier films, like Strike Up the Band, they really show the two stars at their irresistible best.

If you want to see the Rooney and Garland films for yourself, Turner Classic Movies has a DVD collection of four of their collaborations: Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, and Girl Crazy. It includes introductions from Mickey Rooney for each of the films, in which he talks about his memories of Judy Garland and their time together. Warner Archive has also just released a new volume of Andy Hardy films on DVD, which includes Love Finds Andy Hardy. The other Hardy films with Judy Garland are included on an earlier volume of the collection. Babes on Broadway is also currently available on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Shroud of Thoughts Reviews BEYOND CASABLANCA

Terry of A Shroud of Thoughts has posted a new review of BEYOND CASABLANCA, so I wanted to share it here. Thanks so much, Terry! While you're visiting, check out the rest of Terry's blog and his own book, TELEVISION: RARE & WELL-DONE.

A Shroud of Thoughts: Beyond Casablanca by Jennifer C. Garlen: If you are a classic film buff and Turner Classic Movies fan on Twitter or Google+, you may be familiar  with Jennifer Garlen. Jennifer is t...

Classic Films in Focus: ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945)

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and his legacy captivated Hollywood, especially once the rise of the talkies made Ziegfeld style entertainments possible onscreen. Most classic Hollywood musicals opt for a narrative framework to hold their production numbers together, but others, like Ziegfeld Follies (1945), take the master’s approach to the musical and comedy revue. If you’re looking for a plot or any real meaning, you certainly won’t find it here, but you will find a charming collection of sketches and musical numbers performed by some of the biggest stars of the day, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly.

The revue opens as a kind of sequel to The Great Ziegfeld (1936), with William Powell reprising his role as the Broadway producer, now relocated to heavenly quarters. As Ziegfeld looks back on his career and ponders the kind of show he would make if he were still alive, the film transitions to a series of comedy bits, dances, and songs, mostly featuring MGM stars of the 1940s with a few nods to the old days thrown in.

The retrospective segment is done with stop-motion animation, which gets the picture off to a quirky start that kids might appreciate more than adults. Several of the other sequences also favor oddity over artistry, especially the comedy sketches with Fanny Brice and Red Skelton, but both of those stars know their way around a laugh, and Brice’s appearance brings some real Ziegfeld history to the film. Less successful is the pink circus number that sees Lucille Ball inexplicably cracking a whip at a crowd of sexy cat ladies; it would make more sense if this number were also played for laughs, but Ball is presented in full glamor mode, and the sequence seems to take itself seriously, even if the audience can’t. The Virginia O’Brien song, however, is lovably offbeat, just like the singer herself. O’Brien counters the opening song’s tribute to lovely ladies by singing the praises of manly men; the performance prefigures her memorable “Wild, Wild West” number in The Harvey Girls (1946), which would come out the next year.

Fans of Fred Astaire will find a lot to like in Ziegfeld Follies because he appears more often than any other performer in the film, but the highlight is a rare dance duet with Gene Kelly, which offers a first-rate opportunity to contrast the physical styles of the two stars. Other memorable performances include Lena Horne singing “Love” and Judy Garland giving a mock interview as a great dramatic actress. You’ll also find Cyd Charisse, Kathryn Grayson, Lucille Bremer, James Melton, Marion Bell, and Esther Williams in the revue’s more serious numbers, while Edward Arnold, Hume Cronyn, Victor Moore, William Frawley, and Keenan Wynn all appear in the comedy sketches.

Different directors worked on various segments of the picture, including Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney, Lemuel Ayers, and Charles Walters. If you enjoy the musical revue format, try Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and That’s Entertainment! (1974). For more Ziegfeld films, see The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941). Ziegfeld also appears as a character in many Broadway star stories, including The Jolson Story (1946), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), and Funny Girl (1968).

You can currently see Ziegfeld Follies in HD on Warner Archive Instant.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932)

Directed by George Archainbaud, Thirteen Women (1932) is a Pre-Code thriller starring two great actresses of the 1930s, Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy. As its name implies, this film focuses on female characters for most of its action, which sets it apart from other murder mysteries, but it’s a mixed bag as a picture, with a particularly weak third act. Fans of Myrna Loy, however, will still want to see Thirteen Women for another of the star’s memorable performances as an exotic femme fatale, while those who enjoy classic Hollywood trivia will appreciate the film as the only screen appearance of the doomed Peg Entwistle, who famously committed suicide by throwing herself from the top of the Hollywood sign.

Loy plays the mesmerizing half-caste murderess, Ursula Georgi, who uses a swami (C. Henry Gordon) to exact revenge on a group of schoolmates who were unkind to her years ago. One by one the women succumb to Ursula’s baleful influence, and even the swami ends up dead. The survivors gather and hope to ward off their predicted fates, but their leader, Laura (Irene Dunne), must confront the enemy when Ursula targets her son, Bobby (Wally Albright), as the next victim. With the help of a handsome police sergeant (Ricardo Cortez), Laura strives to keep Ursula’s latest prediction from coming true.

We never actually see the whole group of thirteen women in the movie; apparently, some of them ended up on the cutting room floor, with the final version of the picture chopped down to a mere 59 minutes. Fortunately for Hollywood history, Peg Entwistle’s brief appearance stayed in the picture, giving us our only chance to see her onscreen. Like most of the other actresses, Entwistle gets a chance to crank up the sense of doom; ironically, her character, Hazel Cousins, does not commit suicide but instead goes mad and stabs her husband. Mary Duncan opens the series of tragedies with a very effective performance as June Raskob, the trapeze artist, and Kay Johnson has perhaps the most heart-wrenching fate as the grieving mother, Helen, who needs little encouragement from Ursula to kill herself after the recent death of her young child.

Myrna Loy’s performance as the villainous foreigner serves as the real attraction of the film. With her striking costumes and heavy eye makeup, Ursula symbolizes the seductive Eastern Other, striking out at white Western women after their thoughtless rejection of her. Loy got typecast in this kind of role early in her career, but she does it so well that it’s easy to see why. Her best scenes feature her seducing and manipulating the helpless swami and her accomplice, Burns (Edward Pawley), especially the moment that sees her willing the swami to death on the train platform. Men simply turn to putty in her hands, and her hypnotic stare rivals that of Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931). She really is a vamp, formed only to corrupt and destroy. Unfortunately, the ending denies her the kind of suspenseful, thrilling chase and climax that such a character deserves. That deflating, uninspired conclusion proves far more troubling than the missing women or any other problems with the picture, and it keeps Thirteen Women in the minor leagues as an example of its genre.

For another of Myrna Loy’s seductive vamps, see The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), or catch her more famous performances in The Thin Man (1934), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Irene Dunne earned five Oscar nominations for Best Actress over the course of her career, including nods for The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948). George Archainbaud directed for many Westerns and television series, including The Lone Ranger series starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.

You can currently see Thirteen Women on Warner Archive Instant.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Goodreads is a wonderful site for readers, and I enjoy using it to keep track of my own reading and find new books that I might like. BEYOND CASABLANCA: 100 CLASSIC MOVIES WORTH WATCHING also has its own Goodreads page, where you can add the book to your "to-read" list, rate it, and even write reviews.

Here's the link to BEYOND CASABLANCA on Goodreads. I hope you'll check it out! So far, the book has 12 ratings and 3 reviews, and it's on over 200 "to-read" lists. You can also visit my Author Page, have a look at my other books, and even become a fan (I have 11 fans right now - maybe I'm not ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!). If you feel especially social, you can become a Goodreads friend and share book suggestions and your reading lists with me, which I very much enjoy.

Even if a classic movie guide isn't your thing, Goodreads is definitely worth a visit, and it's a great way to enhance your experience as a reader of whatever kinds of books you love!

As always, BEYOND CASABLANCA is available in paperback on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and you can buy it directly from the publisher, Westview. The Kindle edition is only $4.99 on Amazon.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE GHOST GOES WEST (1935)

Like Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Canterville Ghost,” The Ghost Goes West (1935) offers us an old-fashioned ghost thrust into a modern world with comical results. The film proved a big hit in Britain, where it was made, perhaps because of its romantic view of Scotland and skeptical perspective on nouveau riche Americans, but modern audiences everywhere will plenty to enjoy in this charming fantasy. Directed by René Clair and produced by Alexander Korda, The Ghost Goes West is an excellent choice for those who enjoy light supernatural tales like Topper (1937), The Canterville Ghost (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945).

Robert Donat stars as both the ghost, Murdoch Glourie, and his modern day kinsman, Donald. Murdoch has been doomed to haunt the family castle until he avenges an insult to the Glourie name, but cash-strapped Donald is forced to sell the place to a wealthy American family who upset Murdoch by moving the whole structure to Florida. Both Donald and Murdoch enjoy the company of lively Peggy (Jean Parker), who longs to see a ghost but can’t tell Donald and Murdoch apart, and both are vexed by the schemes of Peggy’s father (Eugene Pallette) and his rival (Ralph Bunker) to turn Glourie Castle into a marketing stunt.

Donat looks particularly handsome in Murdoch’s full Highland costume, and his scenes as the waggish ghost, both before and after his death, are some of his best moments in the film. Murdoch has a particular eye for the ladies, but Donald possesses less confidence than his spectral relation, especially when it comes to courting Peggy. Eugene Pallette has another blustering, gruff father to play, and as always he does it well, and the sight of him in a kilt, trying to stage a ghostly manifestation, is certainly good for a laugh. Classic film buffs will also enjoy seeing Elsa Lanchester, best known as the screaming Bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 film, in a supporting role as Miss Shepperton, even though she has little to do beyond rolling her marvelously expressive eyes at Eugene Pallette.

Beyond the ghost story and the romantic comedy, The Ghost Goes West is a narrative about authentic family heritage and modern fakery, with Scottish national identity as the contested ground. The first part of the film pokes fun at the Scottish insistence on clan membership beyond all other loyalties; the Glouries and the McLaggens would rather kill each other than kill their common enemies, the English. Murdoch is cursed not for failing as a soldier in the Jacobite Rebellion but for failing to settle the score against the rival clan. Donald, who has failed as the guardian of his birthright, literally sells out to the Americans, who then make a mockery of real Scottish culture by dressing up in kilts and staging bad imitations of Scottish traditions. Luckily for Murdoch, the farce presents him with a long-awaited opportunity to lift the curse and join his ancestors on the other side.

For another classic film that takes a romantic but humorous view of Scotland and Scottish identity, try I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). See more of Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935), The Citadel (1938), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. Jean Parker also stars in Little Women (1933), Detective Kitty O’Day (1944), and The Gunfighter (1950). You’ll find Eugene Pallette playing other paternal curmudgeons in My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). For more from René Claire, try The Flame of New Orleans (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942).

You can see The Ghost Goes West on Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant for $2.99.