Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful for Classic Movie Stars!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you get to enjoy some classic movies along with your obligatory family time this week. I'm sure many of us will kick off the official start of the Christmas season on Friday with a holiday classic or two - at our house that's White Christmas (1954), even though it almost never snows where we live.

There aren't really a lot of Thanksgiving movies out there, but if we're forced to talk about things we're thankful for at those family gatherings, we can certainly list classic movies and their stars. Here's a Thanksgiving themed list of some of my favorite stars - I wonder which stars you'd pick for your own?

Tyrone Power
Henry Fonda
Alice Faye
Norma Shearer
Katharine Hepburn
Fred Astaire
Una Merkel
Laird Cregar

Friday, October 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE PENALTY (1920)

Part crime drama and part body horror, The Penalty (1920) helped to propel Lon Chaney to true stardom after seven years in the film business and a long roster of less memorable roles. The melodramatic adaptation of Gouverneur Morris' novel about an amputee crime lord gave Chaney the opportunity to demonstrate the lengths he would go to create a physically distinct character, but it also allowed him to show his skill at conveying that character's complex emotional experience. Nearly a century later, Chaney's performance still has the power to move and horrify his audience in equal measure, although some of the story's attitudes toward women, immigrants, and people with disabilities have not aged nearly as well.

Chaney plays a notorious San Francisco kingpin called Blizzard, who lost his legs as a young boy when a novice surgeon (Charles Clary) prematurely amputated them following a car accident. The malpractice was covered up by the doctors, but Blizzard has never forgotten the gross injury done to him. While he plots the ransack of San Francisco with his criminal gang, Blizzard watches for an opportunity to avenge himself on Dr. Ferris, who has since become a well-respected surgeon. He finds his chance when the doctor's artistic daughter, Barbara (Claire Adams), advertises for a model for her sculpture of Satan after the Fall. Meanwhile, Blizzard himself is the target of the secret service, which sends the intrepid agent, Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), undercover into Blizzard's lair.

Chaney has a particular genius for making tragic figures of his most monstrous men, and Blizzard is a terrific example of the actor's ability to make us feel pity and even sympathy for someone sunk so low in the worst of human emotions. Of course we stare at Chaney's tortured body and wonder how he manages the physical feat of playing a legless man, but his face tells us even more about Blizzard's self-loathing and his longing for something beautiful and good in his life. He can look like the devil incarnate, but he can also recall to us the innocent boy whose life was ruined by a foolish doctor's haste. He has his best scenes with the film's two female characters, both of whom respond to the buried humanity that they sense within him. Rose even falls in love with him, though she knows perfectly well the long list of crimes he has committed. If the final explanation for Blizzard's crimes seems far-fetched, it does at least give Chaney another facet of the character to portray, showing that he can be credible as good men as well as monsters.

Blizzard is made more sympathetic by the frankly obnoxious men who are meant to be the "good guys" of the piece, namely Dr. Ferris and his assistant, Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan), both of whom treat Barbara's artistic efforts as a pointless waste of time. Blizzard might be using Barbara for his own insidious ends, but at least he takes her seriously as an artist. Ferris and Wilmot both dislike Blizzard primarily for being "crippled" and "deformed," even though it was Ferris himself who wrecked Blizzard's body by being an incompetent fool. While the film provides some pushback against the sexism and ableism embodied by the doctors, it never confronts its anti-immigrant, Red Scare depiction of Blizzard's army of anarchist "foreign workers" who intend to loot San Francisco. The scheme does, at least, explain Blizzard's decision to pull his "dancing girls" off the streets and put them to work making hundreds of straw hats, which the anarchists will wear as a sort of uniform when they rise up to ransack the city.

Despite these dated attitudes, The Penalty succeeds as a gripping silent drama with a strong flavor of the horrific thanks to Chaney's powerful performance. Anyone interested in the "man of a thousand faces" will find this picture worthwhile, especially if you've already seen later films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), and The Unknown (1927). Director Wallace Worsley worked with Chaney again on several movies, including The Ace of Hearts (1921), A Blind Bargain (1922), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). For contrast in terms of Chaney's depiction of a character with extreme leg problems, try West of Zanzibar (1928).

If you want to read more about The Penalty, check out this thorough discussion of the film at Movies Silently (warning - includes spoilers). The Penalty is currently available for streaming on the horror service Shudder.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Written and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide (1961) offers a moody atmosphere and a very young Dennis Hopper as its main attractions, along with a tragic story about a girl who believes she might be a supernatural temptress from the deep. Its low budget production and ambiguous monster might not thrill everyone, but fans of Val Lewton's work will find a lot to appreciate here. Night Tide relies on doubt and suggestion for its creeping sense of unease, as viewers struggle to learn the truth about the beautiful girl alongside Hopper's infatuated protagonist. If you like Cat People (1942) or even cult favorites like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962), Night Tide is worth tracking down.

Hopper plays young Navy sailor Johnny, who wanders onto the Santa Monica Pier lonely and looking for love. He finds an opportunity with Mora (Linda Lawson), a beautiful but mysterious girl who plays a mermaid in one of the pier's sideshows. Soon Johnny learns unnerving tidbits about Mora, including the drowning deaths of her last two boyfriends. Her guardian, Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), also warns Johnny about Mora, and even Mora herself seems to believe that she poses a danger to her lovers. Johnny isn't sure if more mundane perils dog Mora or if she might really be a deadly siren born to lure men to a watery grave.

The amusement pier is an effective setting for a story of strange, doubtful fear; Johnny drifts through the arcades and attractions like a soul caught in a gaudy, slipshod Purgatory, where nothing seems entirely real. He visits a fortune teller, strikes up a friendship with the owners of the carousel, and watches Mora in her aquarium, where she lies underwater in a mermaid costume and brushes her long, dark hair. A mysterious older woman turns up now and again to frighten Mora, but when Johnny tries to follow her she vanishes. Nothing very horrifying happens at the pier. The events are merely uncanny, but they nurture Johnny's nagging uncertainty about his love. The most overtly frightening moment is Johnny's nightmare near the end of the movie, when it's clear that his subconscious has absorbed more of the situation than his rational mind will admit.

If you grew up watching older, rougher versions of Dennis Hopper, it's a shock to see him so smooth-faced and boyish here. He had been working as an actor since 1954, but in Night Tide his character is strikingly innocent and inexperienced; he arrives in Santa Monica almost an infant, having recently lost his mother and hoping to see the world. He latches onto Mora without knowing anything about her, a dangerous course in a liminal space like the pier, situated as it is between land and sea, terra firma and the fantastic. Linda Lawson is fittingly bewitching as Mora, who pities Johnny, loves him even, but also fears that she might bring about his doom. She has a foil in Luana Anders' tomboyish Ellen, who pines after Johnny but knows she can't compete with the mermaid's charms. The love triangle adds an extra wrinkle to the tale, since Johnny can't even see the appeal of ordinary Ellen when he only has eyes for the mythical Mora. Whether her powers are real or not, Mora functions as a siren in the way she mesmerizes the men in her life, including Captain Murdock, whose feelings for her are not exactly paternal in spite of having raised her since he found her as a child. The conclusion confirms that the danger is real, even if the mermaid is not.

Curtis Harrington went on to write and direct Queen of Blood (1966), another cult horror classic; he also directed What's the Matter with Helen? (1971) and The Killing Kind (1973). For more of Dennis Hopper's early work, see Giant (1956), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); he also turns up in Queen of Blood. Linda Lawson worked mostly in television, but you can see her with Audie Murphy in Apache Rifles (1964). Luana Anders made more contributions to the horror genre with Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Dementia 13 (1963), but she also appears with Hopper in Easy Rider (1969) and returns to work with Harrington in The Killing Kind.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: KINGS ROW (1942)

Mixed reviews are often the hardest ones to write, and I have mixed feelings about Kings Row (1942), the Sam Wood drama adapted from the controversial novel by Henry Bellamann. I think, ultimately, the film is useful as an example of the ways the Hays Code could undermine the purpose of an artistic work in its relentless censorship of any really serious engagement of complicated issues, especially those involving sex. The original novel was an explosive bestseller, while the adaptation is far more conventional and even banal. It's hard to watch Kings Row and not notice the gaps and missteps where material had to be cut out or heavily revised in order to appease the puritanical Joseph Breen, but the film still has some very fine performances, especially from one of my favorite supporting actresses, the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya.

In the film, Robert Cummings plays the protagonist, Parris Mitchell, who grows up in turn-of-the-century Kings Row, a sort of Everytown, USA. Parris has a privileged childhood despite being orphaned, and his best friend, Drake (Ronald Reagan), enjoys similar wealth and ease. Parris suffers a doomed romance with a fragile girl named Cassie (Betty Field), whose father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), serves as a mentor to the aspiring physician. Drake, meanwhile, draws the ire of his sweetheart's parents with his wild ways and ultimately settles down with Randy (Ann Sheridan), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, but his luck takes a turn for the tragic. When a vengeful action threatens to destroy Drake, Parris and Randy work together to restore his will to live.

The movie garnered three Oscar nominations, with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, and James Wong Howe certainly does make the most of the sets and faces on offer. The film also features a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles, including Charles Coburn, Judith Anderson, Henry Davenport, Claude Rains, and the always terrific Ouspenskaya, whose small stature never prevents her from totally dominating a scene. Cummings, Sheridan, and Reagan get the most screen time as the adult versions of the three main characters, whose friendship sustains them through the lowest points in their lives. Sheridan manages to make Randy appealing in spite of the weird tightrope she has to walk about what kind of girl Randy is and the blatantly sexist drivel she has to spout to soothe Drake's wounded self-esteem. Cummings is good looking but not terribly exciting as Parris, while Reagan gets the role of his career as the once carefree victim of Fate's turning wheel.

However, the changes that the Hays office demanded rob Kings Row of most of its purpose as a scathing commentary about the dark side of small town American life. The opening sign extolling the town's virtues should be read ironically, but instead the film bears it out as truth. We never really get the sense that Kings Row is a bad place at all; there's one sadistic doctor with very limited screen time and one crooked banker, but most of the other negative elements have been swept under the rug. The most glaring changes involve the Tower family; the movie makes Cassie a hysterical, mentally disturbed girl whose father is a paragon of paternal concern... for Parris, not his own child. With Drake's initial girlfriend, Louise (Nancy Coleman), also dissolving into hysteria and incipient madness later in the film, Kings Row seems to suggest that what's really wrong with small town America is just a bunch of overwrought girls, not the secret and villainous actions of their powerful, authoritarian fathers. Parris, who is supposed to be a caring psychiatrist, even goes so far as to consider having Louise committed to an asylum to shut her up although he knows perfectly well that she is telling the truth. He only reconsiders because it turns out not to be necessary to protect Drake, whose mental health means more to him than Louise's life. That sexist attitude makes Parris less sympathetic as a character, for it shows how easily he can become just a new generation of the same old attitudes embodied by Dr. Gordon and Dr. Tower.

Director Sam Wood earned two other Oscar nominations in addition to Kings Row, the others being for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940). See more of Ann Sheridan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), They Drive by Night (1940), and Nora Prentiss (1947). Robert Cummings stars in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), while Ronald Reagan has his other most memorable dramatic roles in Dark Victory (1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940). If, like me, you just can't get enough of Maria Ouspenskaya, see her in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), both of which earned her nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and don't miss her best remembered performance in The Wolf Man (1941).

You can read a little more about the background of the Kings Row novel and film here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Nominations for the 2017 National Film Registry

A classic movie friend let me know that we still have a few days left to make nominations to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for the 2017 year. You can make nominations until September 15, 2017, so if you want to contribute to this year's list you should head on over to the website this week.

The National Film Registry's 2016 additions included Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Birds (1963), along with lots of more recent movies like The Princess Bride (1987) and The Lion King (1994). Even though the registry grows each year, my fellow old movie fans will be amazed at some of the classics that haven't yet made the cut; the Library of Congress has a handy list so that people can easily see which of their favorites needs to be nominated. Each person can nominate up to fifty movies on the site's online form; you just need the title and the release year.

I sat down and used the site's list to come up with 50 films that I think should be included in the National Film Registry. Here are the movies I nominated; I hope you'll make time to nominate some, as well! Feel free to share your nomination list in the comments section or shoot me a link if you post your list on your own blog.

Virtual Virago's 50 Nominations to the National Film Registry for 2017
(links go to full reviews of the films on this blog)

The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Night Nurse (1931)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Captains Courageous (1937)
Stella Dallas (1937)
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Pygmalion (1938)
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Dark Victory (1939)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Letter (1940)
They Drive by Night (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
High Sierra (1941)
The Black Swan (1942)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Gaslight (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)
Lifeboat (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Uninvited (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Dragonwyck (1946)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Easter Parade (1948)
Fort Apache (1948)
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Westward the Women (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Everyone's picks will reflect personal tastes and passions; mine skew toward the genres of film noir and classic horror with favorite actors like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Tierney also getting a lot of attention. Of course I'm going to pick Val Lewton whenever possible, which explains the three Lewton pictures - and I didn't even add Lewton films that aren't already on the Library's list, like Bedlam (1946). Even though I only paid lip service to the silent era (for which I feel terrible), I still ran out of slots by the time I reached the early 1950s, and I had to go back and remove a few choices to squeeze in a couple of favorites there at the end. If nothing else, putting together a nomination list will tell you who and what you value most when it comes to classic movies.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)

The 1948 adaptation of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White features some notable character performances and plenty of Gothic mystery, but it isn't an ideal picture or a very faithful treatment of its source material. Its appeal depends mainly on its sinister figures, particularly the always memorable Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco, but its leads are less interesting, and they get the majority of the screen time. Classic film fans will find the movie worth watching for Greenstreet, Agnes Moorehead, and John Abbott, but devotees of the original novel will find the changes problematic, especially where the romantic plot is concerned.

Gig Young plays the painter Walter Hartright, who gets drawn into intrigue when he becomes a drawing master to pretty heiress Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) at Limmeridge House. Walter falls for Laura but is warned of her engagement to Sir Percival Glyde (John Emery) by Laura's cousin, Marian (Alexis Smith). When Walter accuses Sir Percival and Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) of a diabolical plot involving a mad girl who strongly resembles Laura, Marian tells him to leave, but both Laura and Marian soon discover that Walter's suspicions were correct. Reunited some months later, Walter and Marian realize that Laura's double has died and been buried as Laura herself; together, they set out to rescue Laura from an asylum and restore her true identity.

The most appealing of the novel's sympathetic characters is Marian Halcombe, and the film recognizes this fact even as it rewrites much of her role. Alexis Smith gives a fine performance as the intelligent, capable Marian, who serves as a foil to the delicate and rather insipid Laura. Eleanor Parker is actually more interesting as mad Ann, Laura's double, than she is as Laura herself, and sadly that's a fault that the film keeps from the original text, in which Laura is a demure Victorian angel made damsel in distress. Both actresses give better performances than poor Gig Young, whose Walter seems very stiff for a lover who can't decide which girl he likes. Walter's role in the novel as de facto detective doesn't really carry over into the movie, and this leaves Young with little to do but strike poses and lock eyes with both of his leading ladies.

The action depends much more on the heavies, especially Greenstreet's Count Fosco as the prime mover of the plot. Greenstreet has just the combination of charm and menace, as well as the impressive girth, that make Fosco so fascinating as a literary villain, and if you like Greenstreet in other films you'll enjoy his performance here. John Emery's Sir Percival is just a thug in comparison, always eager to jump into murder, while John Abbott is delightfully awful and ineffectual as Laura's hypochondriac Uncle Frederick. Only Agnes Moorehead enjoys any ambiguity about her character's intentions; her Countess Fosco is an odd, repressed figure who has her own reasons for hating Fosco and pitying the plight of poor Ann. Fans of the actress will be sorry that she doesn't have more scenes, but she gets quite a moment in the film's climax as compensation.

The problems with The Woman in White might lie more with Stephen Morehouse Avery's screenplay than Peter Godfrey's direction or any actor's performance, but flaws it definitely has, although some of them are only apparent to those familiar with Collins' source material. Godfrey's best film, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), also stars Greenstreet, but most people remember the rotund actor most for his appearances in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). You can see Alexis Smith play nasty in Godfrey's 1947 picture, The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Eleanor Parker went on to earn three Best Actress nominations for her roles in Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), and Interrupted Melody (1955). Gig Young gets more to do in The Three Musketeers (1948), Torch Song (1953), and Desk Set (1957), and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928)

Tod Browning's silent 1928 story of revenge in the African Congo provides a challenge to modern viewers, given that it relies on hyper-racist stereotypes and deeply rooted misogyny for much of its horror, but if you're looking for something truly horrifying then West of Zanzibar (1928) certainly fits the bill. It packs an astounding amount of perverse cruelty into 65 minutes of film, most of it perpetuated by Lon Chaney as a paralyzed villain on a vendetta against his romantic rival and the child who symbolizes his betrayal. Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter also have prominent roles, although Mary Nolan takes most of the abuse as the young woman persecuted by Chaney's monstrous vengeance. Chaney is, as always, mesmerizing in a dark and complicated role, but be warned that this film is no stroll in the park.

Chaney plays the magician Phroso, who loses the use of his legs in a fight with Crane (Barrymore), the man who is stealing his wife. Later the wife turns up again with a baby in tow and promptly dies. Over his wife's corpse, Phroso swears vengeance on Crane and his child, thus embarking on an eighteen year mission to ruin Crane, debauch his daughter, and murder them both by invoking the ritual sacrifice performed by a tribe of African cannibals. Phroso makes himself a voodoo master in the remote African camp by using his magician's tricks, but his relentless desire for revenge blinds him to a painful truth until it is almost too late to change.

Chaney's performance is the highlight here. He begins as a sympathetic victim, a good man buffeted by unkind fate. His world crumbles when his beloved wife abandons him and her suitor cripples him, but these events alone do not change him. He only chooses evil over good in the church where he finds his wife's body, with the helpless infant crying nearby. The scene swells with terrible irony; Phroso looks on the Virgin and Child, and instead of pity for his wife's daughter chooses hate. From then on he embraces cruelty, sending the girl to be raised in a Zanzibar brothel while he cheats Crane of his ivory haul. Chaney plays Phroso as tragic, then monstrous, with slight hints of the vestiges of his humanity peeking through from time to time just to remind us of what he once was. His dead legs provide a physical parallel to his withered soul, and Chaney is, of course, brilliant in the way he manages to convey both the bodily and the spiritual wreckage.

Everyone else mainly reacts to Chaney, and the emotions called for are horror, disgust, fear, and loathing. In his own way, Lionel Barrymore's Crane is just as much a monster as Phroso, wreaking havoc and creating misery without ever worrying about the consequences of his actions. He laughs at Phroso's folly because he feels no pity for its victims. Mary Nolan, as Maizie, is chief among these; her tragic eyes and body language suggest so much more about her suffering than the title cards can convey. Warner Baxter plays a good man mired in Hell as Doc, but Maizie's arrival stirs his numbed conscience, and the pair eventually gather the courage to defy Phroso. These two characters get more nuanced development in the 1932 version of the story, Kongo, which fleshes out the doctor's narrative and their budding romance. The superstitious natives also react to Phroso, but they're so hideously stereotyped that they remove the viewer from the moment, and it's hard to blame the actors playing them for being unenthusiastic about selling their roles.

If nothing else, West of Zanzibar proves (yet again) that silent horror is by no means tame; Browning pushes buttons and tests limits in ways that no horror director of the 40s or 50s could. It suffers from the usual limitations of its era, especially where racist, colonialist attitudes are concerned, and it exploits the sexual degradation of its main female character in deeply uncomfortable ways. It might be preferable to start with other Chaney films if you aren't already well versed in his work or silent movies in general; try The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), or The Unknown (1927). For some of Browning's more controversial work, see Freaks (1932), or try his very weird collaboration with star Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1932), in which Barrymore plays the man obsessed with revenge. Browning and Barrymore also team up for The Show (1927). For a different look at Warner Baxter, try The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

Director Peter Godfrey's modern Gothic offers two iconic stars - Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck - as its leads, which is reason enough to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) in spite of its flaws. Bogart, who played heavies off and on throughout his career, is back on the dark side as a painter who finds artistic inspiration by murdering his wives, while Stanwyck is unusually naive as his current wife and next intended victim. Supporting performers include Nigel Bruce as an atrociously incompetent doctor and Ann Carter as Bogart's beguiling daughter, while Alexis Smith is particularly memorable as a predatory seductress who might be getting more than she expects by tempting Bogart's unhinged artist to leave his wife for her. Bogart, Stanwyck, and Smith all give fine performances, but the film suffers from a lack of suspense that undermines its chilling premise.

Stanwyck plays Sally, who becomes the second wife of painter Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) after his first wife dies. Sally doesn't suspect that her predecessor's demise was murder, and Geoffrey goes to great lengths to hide his crimes even as he contemplates a second disposal to make way for wife number three. Goaded by the offers of the beautiful Cecily (Alexis Smith), Geoffrey intends to make Sally another victim of his maniacal need for a new muse to drive his work. Geoffrey's young daughter, Bea (Ann Carter), eventually reveals some of his secrets, and Sally realizes the truth about her husband, but her revelation might come too late to save her from his murderous schemes.

The two leads are the chief attraction here, though both are somewhat out of their element. Humphrey Bogart never looks like an artist, but he does make for a credible killer, and it's great fun to watch his Geoffrey come unhinged whenever his secrets are threatened. By the end of the film he has gone right off the rails, justifying his actions with a horrifically sexist assertion that his art is more important than any woman's life. The simmering intensity that Bogart exemplifies works well for dangerous, unstable characters, and his performance here provides a parallel to his more celebrated work in The Petrified Forest (1936), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Stanwyck, normally a tough cookie and occasionally up for murder herself, here has an ingenue's role, and one of the film's frustrations is that we expect a Stanwyck character to be smarter. Stanwyck plays Sally as loyal, kind, and unsuspecting, which is what the role seems to demand of her, but it's not as good a part as the actress deserves, and Alexis Smith has the meatier role as the scheming Cecily. Stanwyck would get a much better chance to play an imperiled wife in the 1948 film, Sorry, Wrong Number, showing what she could do with a part more suited to her talent.

While the casting issues cause some obvious problems, the chief complaint about The Two Mrs. Carrolls is its inability to generate suspense. The film shows us up front that Geoffrey murders his first wife, creating dramatic irony for the audience as we wait for Sally to catch up. This approach can work well in a narrative, depending on how the unfolding events are handled as the protagonist learns the truth, but Sally stays in the dark so long that we wonder if she's paying attention. When she does finally figure it out there's a flood of information dumped into the last act so rapidly that we don't have time to savor Sally's discoveries. Even the reveal of the gruesome portrait of Sally as an Angel of Death - which ought to be a major moment - seems rushed. We see it briefly and then it's gone as Sally rushes on to the next piece of evidence. Great Gothic thrillers, whether literary or cinematic, use the slow build of rising suspicion and horror to drive the plot and the heroine forward to the inevitable confrontation with the villain. One has only to compare this movie's poisoned milk scenes with the one in Suspicion (1941) to see how differently a really suspenseful film handles the same concept. The 1940s, in fact, saw a host of excellent Gothic thrillers appear in the wake of Rebecca (1940) and the Jane Eyre inspired boom that followed, and it's a shame that The Two Mrs. Carrolls falls short in comparison with its sister films.

In spite of its failures, classic movie buffs will want to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls because it's the only picture to pair Bogart and Stanwyck. It's also worth seeing for fans of Ann Carter, the child star who so memorably plays the young protagonist of The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Peter Godfrey directs Alexis Smith again in The Woman in White (1948), which continues the Gothic trend, as does Cry Wolf (1947), which has Godfrey directing again for Stanwyck. For more of Smith and Bogart in a tale of murderous marriage, try Conflict (1945). Most of the Warner Bros. films are available as DVD on demand from the Warner Archive, including The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The First Time: Memorable Movie Introductions

In my last post I talked about the first time I saw George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which got me thinking about the other movies I remember seeing for the first time. If you're like me, you watch so many movies that a lot of the viewings run together (which is why some of us have film journals to keep track), but other experiences stand out. Perhaps it's the place where it happened, or the other people who were there, or maybe it's that the film itself made such a huge impact on you as a first-time viewer. I made an effort to think about the movies I can clearly remember seeing for the first time, and here's the list I came up with, as well as what I can recall about the circumstances in which I saw them.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

This is the first movie I distinctly remember seeing for the first time, at a drive-in in Jesup, GA, in 1981. Given my long-standing love for SF/F and special effects, it's no shock that I loved it. It also stirred my interest in mythology, which fueled a passion for all things literary.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

All seen in 1988 at the Governor's Honors Program in Valdosta, GA (see my post about that)

Alien (1979)

At a fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1989 - the brothers were drunk, but I was sober, and I got so sucked into watching the movie that I paid no attention to the shenanigans going on around me, much to the disappointment of the guy who hoped I'd be scared by the film and need his manly protection. I think he left when I started laughing at the death scenes. (No, I don't remember now why I thought they were funny!)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

At an NC-17 film series at Emory University in late January 1991, with the man I would eventually marry. Oddly enough, this series formed the basis of most of our first week of dating, an odd start in terms of content but fitting given how many movies we have seen together since. Of the two, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover made by far the greatest impression. I can still close my eyes and see whole scenes of that film, though I have not watched it again in all these years. The ending in particular is impossible to forget. This was my first real exposure to foreign films as such, not to mention NC-17 films. I went back to Emory's little theater for a Star Trek marathon, Prospero's Books (1991), and My Own Private Idaho (1991) during my college years, all memorable in their own ways.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Talk about a weird double feature! I saw both with a large group of friends from Agnes Scott and Emory. We all went to an Atlanta theater for Silence of the Lambs, which left us feeling freaked out by the time it got over. Luckily, we came out of the theater to find a floor show of Rocky Horror recruiting an audience for their midnight screening. It turned out that Frank-N-Furter was a high school friend of some of our folks, and we all got in for free. Silence is the better movie, but Rocky Horror was more fun; it was the first time I saw the live show.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Another group trip with a different crowd of friends - this one involved a pickup truck full of freezing college students at a drive-in theater outside Atlanta. I don't know why we thought it was a good idea to sit in the back of a truck on a freakishly cold night, but nobody lost any toes. I had to watch the movie again a few years later because I was too cold to pay that much attention to it at the time, but I'll never forget the experience itself.

Easter Parade (1948)

Most of these entries have been movies that were new at the time, but I got to discover this charming musical as part of a senior colloquium on comedy in 1992. The professor who showed it was Pat Pinka, and she was obviously delighted to present it to a room full of English majors. We studied many excellent works during this seminar course, including Swift's "Modest Proposal" and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but Easter Parade stands out as an example of the pure joy of a different kind of comedy.

Most of this list comes from my college years, a formative time, I think, for most young people, but for me especially because the town where I grew up had limited my access to so much of art and popular culture. I was lucky to get away to Atlanta and liberal arts campuses where I could explore literature, film, and my own identity. I went to museums, live theater, the ballet, and pretty much every movie theater in the greater metro area. So many of those movie experiences were memorable because it was all so new to me; even having friends with whom to see those movies was new. Now I see movies in the theater with my family all the time, but I also get to show movies to groups at libraries and lifetime learning programs, and I think the communal experience of watching and talking about a film makes a big difference.

I also talk about seeing some of these films for the first time in this post, so head over to that if you're interested in the portrait of the cinephile as a young girl theme.

What are the movies you remember seeing for the first time? Where were you and who were you with? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My First Summer of Cinema - 1988

George Romero's death this week has left me feeling nostalgic about the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was also the first time I heard of Romero, saw a zombie film, and found out that movies were something people could take seriously and discuss as forms of art. Almost thirty years later, it's an experience that still resonates as a profound influence on my life and the person I eventually became.

I was spending the summer studying Communication Arts at the Governors Honors Program, a free camp that sent qualifying Georgia high school students for six weeks of academic opportunity at the Valdosta State campus. Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Valdosta and my dorm had no air conditioning, I was truly happy for the first time in my life. I was a lonely, bookish, skinny girl from a rural town in South Georgia. My conservative, religious parents controlled my life and frowned on my interest in becoming a writer or an artist while refusing to confront the causes of the deep depression that resulted from being trapped in such a situation. Getting away from them and out of town for the whole summer was a miracle in and of itself, but spending it with other nerdy, smart kids and having real friends for the first time while learning the most amazing stuff was almost too good to be true. I don't exaggerate when I say that Governor's Honors changed - and saved - my life.

In addition to days spent learning about literature from college professors (also my first time being around college professors!), we had a constant stream of bonus opportunities in the evenings and on weekends. One of my friends suggested that we attend a film series of social commentary shockers, and I went along, having no real concept of what that meant. I had not been allowed to see horror movies or R rated movies of any kind at home; we didn't have cable, and my parents exercised strict veto power over anything I tried to rent at the video store or see in the pitiful two screen theater downtown. During the film series we sat in desks in a dark, blessedly cool classroom, taking in these movies that I had never heard of before but would never forget seeing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was up first, horrifying us with its gruesome zombies but really punching us in the gut at the end. Next came One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); the discovery that frontal lobotomy was actually a thing that happened to people gave me nightmares for days. We finished up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was probably my favorite of the series if only because I was instantly charmed by Donald Sutherland, whom I had never seen before. Each picture shocked, terrified, and delighted me. It felt transgressive to be watching them, and I certainly didn't mention them to my parents.

The professor who showed the films introduced them and led discussions afterwards, something I often did as an English professor and still do today as a speaker at libraries, lifetime learning programs, and retirement communities. It made the movies so much more interesting to know something about them going in and have a lively conversation afterward. I don't remember if I contributed to the discussions back then; I was probably too ashamed of my own ignorance when many of the kids around me were obviously more schooled in the issues and the films. I remember a lot more about that series, though, than the Hitchcock screenings that ran in the student center, where we didn't have introductions or discussions. The academic, engaged approach made a big difference in the overall impact of the films.

Comm Arts kids were called "Commies" - we got shirts! Yes, I kept mine.

It's strange to look back thirty years later and realize that something so minor - just a few evenings of movie screenings, led by a knowledgeable person who thought kids should know something about film - would alter me in such an enduring way. I knew from the moment I arrived at Governor's Honors that it was the single best thing that had ever happened to me. It would go on changing my life in huge ways for the next several years, but I didn't suspect then that an introduction to George Romero's zombie classic would put me on a path to decades of passionate engagement with the art of cinema. Thanks, Mr. Romero, and thanks to that professor who wanted us to see those films. I'm trying to carry on the good work.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Making a Hollywood House in Alabama: Movie Posters and Art

Errol Flynn is in the bedroom, of course.
As part of an ongoing effort to make our house a more interesting and personally relevant space (as opposed to a collection of things other people chose for us or handed down), I finally got frames for the posters I bought at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Los Angeles. If you haven't been, Larry Edmunds is a true Hollywood treasure, a place were cinephiles can revel in film posters, books, lobby cards, and other items related to cinema. If I lived in driving distance of the store I'd be in there all the time, but, sadly, it's a long haul from Alabama. Any movie buff planning a visit to L.A. should definitely put Larry Edmunds on the must-see list.

Unfortunately, the Jezebel and Adventures of Robin Hood posters I picked up are an odd size, so I never did find frames that were a perfect fit. I finally gave up and matted them, but I'll be giving that more thought if and when I manage another trip to L.A. I'm probably a little too old to just tape posters up like I did as a college student (back then my prize possession was a British quad poster for The Lost Boys). Besides, I don't want to damage them!

Wonderground Gallery postcard prints
I'm also working to frame and hang a number of pieces from the fabulous Wonderground Gallery stores at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Everyone at my house is a serious Disney fan, and the kitchen has slowly been transforming into a Wonderground Gallery tribute space over the last few years. You can find the most unusual and interesting art at the two galleries, with prints featuring classic Disney characters, attractions, and Star Wars (a LOT of Star Wars). The smallest prints - 5x7 postcards - are only $5 each, and I come home from each Disney trip with another 4 or 5 cards. I only wish I had bought some bigger pieces on my last trip! They offer a few items from the collection at the Disney Store website, but it's a pale substitute for visiting the actual stores.

For those who can't travel, there's always AllPosters.com, where I found some good deals on a couple of classic movie posters on my most recent visit. I'm not rich enough to shop at FilmPosters.com, but if anyone wants to buy me an original Curse of the Cat People poster for $2,750.00 I'll be glad to take it!

Jezebel guards the jewelry box.
I've got a number of stills, promotional photos, and other postcard sized movie items, so I'll be working over the next few weeks and months to figure out how to get them onto the walls and out of the drawers around the house. I realize I need to stop being so cheap and go in for some larger art that will really make an impact in a room. I'm curious about how other film fans display their favorite movie posters and art, so I'd love to hear about it! Where do you buy your movie memorabilia, and what do you do with it?

Monday, June 12, 2017

12 Mummy Movies Worth Watching

At an abysmal 17 %, the Rotten Tomatoes rating of the new version of The Mummy (2017) might have you hiding in your sarcophagus instead of rushing to the theater, but, luckily for mummy lovers, Hollywood has produced plenty of better pictures in the genre. You can save your dollars for another round of Wonder Woman and still get your Egyptian undead fix with any of these twelve films, which show the long history of the movie mummy and the many different ways the character can be treated.

1) THE MUMMY (1932) - Boris Karloff shines in this original outing for the iconic monster, although he spends most of the film in more human form as Ardath Bey. The role gives him a chance to use his hypnotic voice, something he was denied as the mute creature in Frankenstein (1931), but it also helps to cement his importance as a leading player in classic horror. This dreamy contemplation on the pas de deux of love and death sets the tone for many of the mummy movies to follow, as well it should. After 85 years, it remains the greatest example of the genre and still captivates audiences as Imhotep lures his lost love back to his immortal side.

2) THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940) - It took eight years for Universal to make another mummy movie, this time without the powerful appeal of Karloff. While The Mummy's Hand isn't a great movie, it does have its charms, and it sets up a series of pictures featuring the character of Kharis. The later Kharis films star Lon Chaney, Jr. as the mummy, but in this outing Western actor Tom Tyler shuffles beneath the bandages as the undead menace. The later films, which fall further into strict matinee fare, include The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and The Mummy's Curse (1944).

3) THE MUMMY (1959) - In the late 1950s, Hammer rebooted the Universal monster tales with a series of gorgeous, lurid productions starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and this retelling of the mummy story adds a little of the signature Hammer sex appeal to a story that already has a weird romance as its driving force. Lee shambles tragically as the mummy Kharis, while Peter Cushing plays the archeologist trying to stop an ancient Egyptian curse from depriving him of both his life and his lovely spouse.

4) BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971) - This is a later, sexier Hammer production from the early 70s and a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1903 novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. While it's light on actual mummies, the film is memorable for Valerie Leon's allure and a higher body count than many earlier films. Daily Dead has a good review of the film here, if you're interested in learning more, and most Hammer fans will find it worthwhile if imperfect. Some of its problems aren't really the fault of the film, since Peter Cushing bowed out early due to his wife's illness, and director Seth Holt died during filming.

5) AMAZING STORIES: "Mummy Daddy" (1985) - OK, so it's not a movie, but this mummy story has so much love for classic Universal horror that you have to see it, anyway, and it's one of the most beloved and memorable episodes of the influential television series. Tom Harrison stars as an actor in full mummy makeup who takes off from location to greet his new baby's arrival, although along the way he gets into all kinds of trouble thanks to his scary costume and the presence of an actual mummy shambling about the swamp. The plot of the episode mirrors an old story about Boris Karloff rushing to the hospital for his daughter's birth in full costume as Frankenstein's monster, but you'll find tributes to many Universal monster movies over the course of the episode.

6) TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990) - Admittedly, only the first segment of this horror anthology film is about mummies, but it's memorable enough that I include it here (honestly, I remember it scaring me half to death when I saw it in the theaters as a teenager). "Lot 249" stars Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and Robert Sedgwick in a plot about a college student's gruesome revenge against his classmates. The segment is adapted from the 1892 short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which helped to establish many of the conventions of the mummy horror tale, so this is a good one to track down if you're interested in the history of supernatural mummy stories.

7 and 8) THE MUMMY (1999) and THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001) - Although its history of rebooting the classic monsters has been spotty at best, Universal really knocked it out of the park with Stephen Sommers' delightful 1999 adventure, which mixed scares, laughs, and action in equal measure. Arnold Vosloo is an imposing, muscled Imhotep, accidentally brought back to life by archeologists and bent on resurrecting his long lost love. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Oded Fehr, and John Hannah have such great chemistry as our heroic team that it's good to see them back in action for the 2001 sequel, even if the second movie doesn't quite measure up to the first. Like the Amazing Stories episode, part of the charm of this version is its love for the films that have come before, so it pays to watch the 1932 version first and then watch the 1999 one. You can probably skip the later installments of the franchise unless you're really invested in Dwayne Johnson as the Scorpion King.

9) BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) - There's nothing else out there quite like Bubba Ho-Tep, but people who have seen it love it, and I'm happy to be yet another fan urging you to put this one on your watch list. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis star as nursing home residents who take up their walkers and canes to fight a murderous mummy, but they're not just any old geezers, they're Elvis and JFK, still alive but rather the worse for wear. Adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lonsdale, Bubba Ho-Tep is either your kind of thing or it isn't, but it's a terrific example of horror comedy's ability to juggle its two genres' demands. It's weird and scary and absolutely hilarious, and it's one of those movies that every monster film fan really ought to see.

10, 11 and 12) NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM trilogy (2006, 2009, 2014) - This is a more kid-friendly way to watch some mummy movie adventures, but the three pictures borrow a lot from the genre's traditions in service to the plot of having museum exhibits that come alive at night. Ben Stiller leads a huge cast of well-known stars in all three pictures, and the focus is squarely on comedic adventure, but those who know their mummy movies will see the films putting familiar conventions to work in interesting ways. The ancient Egyptian pharaoh character, Ahkmenrah, figures in all three pictures and is played by Rami Malek, whom you will recognize immediately from his current TV series, Mr. Robot. The Night at the Museum movies mark one of the few times a person of actual Egyptian heritage has gotten to play an Egyptian mummy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Orry-Kelly and WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED (2015)

Gillian Armstrong's 2015 documentary film about Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly is currently streaming on Netflix, and it offers an intriguing look at the life of the three time Oscar winner, who dressed stars as iconic and diverse as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, and Natalie Wood. The documentary uses dramatic recreation and a wry performance by Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly to tell the story of the Australian costume designer's early life and long - if uneven - career in Hollywood. While it's obviously of interest to classic film fans with an eye for fashion, Women He's Undressed also provides a straightforward consideration of the problems of being a gay man in Golden Age Hollywood, when many stars and people behind the scenes were driven to keep their personal lives secret for fear of exposure, scandal, and expulsion.

The dramatic recreations are fun, sometimes quite cheeky, and good at conveying Orry-Kelly's sense of humor. The documentary also relies on interviews with various stars and costume designers who knew Orry-Kelly, including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, and Ann Roth. These segments flesh out different aspects of Orry-Kelly's life, including his experience as part of the industry's gay community and his relationships with people like Jack Warner and his wife. One thing we don't see much of is film footage of Orry-Kelly himself, although we do get some still photos and snippets of letters, particularly those between the designer and his devoted mother. Film clips instead focus on the clothes and the actresses he dressed in his most successful work; these are, of course, important to understanding the designer's contributions to cinema, but it would be nice to see more of the real Orry-Kelly in the mix.

The documentary wades right into the ongoing debate about Cary Grant's sexual orientation; Orry-Kelly and Grant - then Archie Leach - knew one another and lived together early in their careers in New York, but Grant snubbed Orry-Kelly once stardom arrived. In fact, Grant really doesn't come off in a positive light, which is sure to upset some viewers, but it's clear that Orry-Kelly was deeply hurt by the end of their friendship, and this film is about his perspective.

Overall, Women He's Undressed succeeds at raising interest in and awareness of Orry-Kelly's life and work; it will send a lot of classic movie fans back to Jezebel, Some Like It Hot, and Gypsy for a fresh look at the ways in which the clothes make the pictures. Bette Davis devotees should, in particular, make time to watch the documentary and consider the designer's crucial role in shaping Davis' look in many of her most memorable roles. If you're interested in seeing more films from Australian director Gillian Armstrong, you might try her 1994 adaptation of Little Women or her 2010 documentary, Love, Lust & Lies.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Cult Classics: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is Brian de Palma's musical cult tribute to a number of iconic horror tales, most notably The Phantom of the Opera and Faust, although it also functions as a scathing satire of the music industry and its obsession with sex, fame, and eternal youth. As both writer and director, de Palma gets to make this picture his own weirdly delightful creature, which succeeds at being bizarre while also being surprisingly good. Songs and a devilish performance by Paul Williams enhance the movie's appeal, but each actor here has his or her own charms, especially William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Gerrit Graham. Fans of the many iterations of either Phantom or Faust should not miss this sly, gloriously excessive rock & roll interpretation of themes near and dear to the heart of every classic horror fan.

Williams brings fame and ruin as the reclusive recording mogul Swan, who steals a Faust cantata from the gifted but naive Winslow Leach (William Finley). When Winslow pursues him, Swan has Winslow thrown in prison, where he is abused and driven mad until he finally escapes, and, in a fit of rage, attacks the facility where Swan's records are produced. Horribly disfigured as a result, Winslow haunts Swan's new venue, The Paradise, where he is drawn into an unholy deal to finish the Faust cantata if the beautiful young Phoenix (Jessica Harper) can sing it.

De Palma mixes the plot elements of both Phantom and Faust in his triangle of principal characters; Winslow is most obviously the damaged genius, with shades of Claude Rains' Phantom in the 1943 film, but he's also a Faustian character who makes a deal with Swan's devil, making Swan himself both Faust and Mephistopheles. Phoenix is Faust's Gretchen and the Phantom's Christine, although she, too, nurses a Faustian longing for fame that Swan can exploit. Much of this mingling is inherent in Gaston Leroux's original novel about the Phantom, where the opera being performed by the company is, of course, Faust. Not content, however, to continue the blending of these two texts, de Palma also adds elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein and several Gothic flourishes straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. The Frankenstein homage gets particularly gruesome and delightful when Goth rockers build lead singer Beef (Gerrit Graham) out of fake audience body parts against a decidedly German Expressionist backdrop. The result, a sexually transgressive blond hunk covered in glittery gold, will look familiar to fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), but Phantom watchers will also recognize him as the diva who must be removed from the opera so that the Phantom's chosen singer can take the stage.

The film's other main objective is skewering the music industry, which seems like an easy mark. Rock & roll in particular abounds in opportunities for Faustian bargains, where desperate people trade their bodies, their youth, and even their souls for fame. If Winslow is naive the first time he encounters Swan, he never learns enough to walk away until it's much too late. Even the most minor characters reveal a disturbing willingness to prostitute themselves, from the scantily clad honeys to the constantly changing Juicy Fruits. The band provides an amusing survey of the history of rock, starting out as 50s style greasers, then transforming into Beach Boys clones, and later reappearing to support Beef in Gothic rock garb. Many of the film's musical in-jokes involve Paul Williams, who wrote the songs for the film and then plays the character who steals those songs from the protagonist; he also provides the singing voice for the Phantom during the Phantom's theme halfway through the film. Ironically for a film about the dark side of the industry, Phantom of the Paradise ends up demonstrating the beauty that can result from it. Williams' best songs are haunting ruminations on the Faustian theme of losing yourself in pursuit of something greater, particularly the Phantom's theme, "The Hell of It," "Special to Me," "Old Souls," and "Faust."

Phantom of the Paradise bombed back in 1974, but it has a devoted following now, and it's easy to see why people love this film. Despite its box office failure, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music for Paul Williams and George Aliceson Tipton and a Golden Globe nomination for Williams for Best Score. For more early de Palma work featuring William Finley, try The Wedding Party (1969), Sisters (1972), or The Fury (1978). Look for Jessica Harper in de Palma's Suspiria (1977), Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), or Pennies from Heaven (1981). Paul Williams turns up in all sorts of places, from Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) to Smokey and the Bandit (1977); he even provides the voice for The Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series. For many fans of a certain age, however, he's best known as the composer for The Muppet Movie (1979), and we have him to thank for "The Rainbow Connection."

*** You can rent Phantom of the Paradise on Google Play or Amazon Instant Video for about $4, depending on the format. If, like me, you fall for the film, you can download the original soundtrack for $10 on iTunes (which you should definitely do).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

California 2017: Highlights from the Warner Bros. Studio Tour

We spent spring break in Los Angeles and Anaheim this year, ostensibly to tour colleges for our teenager (whose dream school is Cal Arts). While I was once again too early to revel in the delights of the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, I did manage to enjoy plenty of movie buff destinations, from Hollywood Blvd. to Disneyland. One of our best side trips was a morning at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, where we took in a guided tour. Lauren, our tour guide, was a TCM addict and classic film fan, so she was the perfect person to tell us all about the studio's golden age stars and productions!

Here are a few photos of classic Hollywood items from the museum showcase near the end of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.

First up is a dress worn by the great Olivia de Havilland in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also stars Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as the title characters. It's not one of the more elaborate costumes from the film, but it was still wonderful to see something the actress wore in the picture. It was even nicer because de Havilland celebrated her 100th birthday last summer and is still with us.

Also on display is the microphone used in The Jazz Singer (1927), which is, of course, the perfect item to symbolize the picture that really ushered in the talkie era. It's so big that I inevitably thought of Singin' in the Rain (1952) when I saw it, remembering how much trouble those clunky nuisances gave Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen when their characters tried to make the jump from silent films to sound!

I was also delighted to find a few items from The Music Man (1962), starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. My husband and daughter were horrified when I immediately began singing "Seventy-Six Trombones" while staring at this display case, but, honestly, could you have resisted the urge? That trombone is right there. They're lucky it wasn't a costume worn by Ron Howard, or I might have struck up "Gary, Indiana" or "Wells Fargo Wagon" and never stopped.

These photos are just a fraction of what we saw on the tour, which took all morning and was worth every penny. If you find yourself in the LA area, I definitely recommend the Warner Bros. tour as a top pick. Although it also provides a lot of exhibits geared toward fans of modern movies and TV shows, there's plenty for classic movie buffs to appreciate. The only disappointment is the gift shop at the end, which has absolutely nothing to celebrate the studio's long history. Come on, Warner! Can't you even get us a Casablanca fridge magnet or a Rick's Cafe Americain coffee mug?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

My Life in Films: Favorite Movies by Year

Film Twitter has prompted me to join in on the recent lists of people's favorite movies for each year of their lives. At 45, I feel like that's a lot of territory to cover, and of course a lot of the movies I watch these days came out long before I was born, but I have seen most of the big hits for most of the years in question.

I want to clarify my process a bit before I get to the actual list. As I looked at the films for each year, I asked myself the following questions:

1) Do I own the movie? If I didn't feel the need to buy it, then it's probably not my favorite.
2) How many times have I voluntarily watched this movie? Have I watched it again recently?
3) How much of this movie can I quote or recite from memory? The more of it I know by heart, the bigger the impression it has obviously made.
4) Do I own merchandise and/or clothing celebrating my love for this movie? Since I'm wearing a Yoda t-shirt as I type this post, it would be silly to pretend that I'm not a sucker for Star Wars and/or Muppets. Not all movies get merchandise, of course, but if I love something enough to wear it on a shirt I'm probably pretty attached to it.

I didn't pick the "best" movie from each year; I picked a favorite. I didn't think about Oscars or box office appeal (or lack thereof) or whether hipsters would approve of my choices. Sometimes the decisions were excruciatingly hard, and there are three or even four really close seconds that on a different day might get the edge over the one I chose today. I didn't pick any of these to impress anyone; I'm a lifelong geek with a deep love for science fiction, fantasy, Disney, animation, and comic books. I like quirky, funny stuff. I like super heroes. I picked movies that I go back to many times because they make me happy, so you won't see a lot of tragic downers on this list because my favorite movies are the ones that make me want to keep living. Your list will be different, and that's OK.

So, without further delay, here's a favorite film for every year of my life so far...

1972 Dracula A.D. 1972   (Cushing & Lee do disco Dracula - I can't help it)
1973 Robin Hood    (yes, the Disney one)
1974 Young Frankenstein    (Sweet mystery of life at last I've found you!)
1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail      (Just a little peril...)
1976 Murder by Death     (I love the cast; I love the parody of the genre)
1977 Star Wars     (Changed my life)
1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers    (Donald Sutherland's goggle-eyed stare!)
1979 The Muppet Movie    (Makes me deeply happy. Can you picture that?)
1980 The Empire Strikes Back    ("I love you." "I know.")
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark    (Bad dates. Plus, Nazi punching!)
1982 The Last Unicorn      (Makes me cry. One of my favorite books ever.)
1983 Return of the Jedi     (Yes, I even like the Ewoks.)
1984 Ghostbusters     (There is no Dana!)
1985 Back to the Future     (Still so much fun)
1986 Labyrinth     (Tough year of choices, but I'm going for Bowie & weird Muppets)
1987 The Princess Bride    (Come, my love, I'll tell you a tale...)
1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade    (My favorite Indy movie)
1990 Back to the Future III    (I love the Western steampunk vibe)
1991 The Addams Family    (Because it's awesome & so is the pinball machine)
1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol    (Light the lamp, not the rat!)
1993 Groundhog Day    (Because we watch it every year)
1994 The Lion King     (Hakuna matata!)
1995 Babe    (I grew up with Border Collies, and James Cromwell is great.)
1996 Matilda    (A girl reads books - what's not to love?)
1997 The Fifth Element   (Super green!)
1998 Dark City    (Ebert's favorite for 1998 and mine, too)
1999 The Iron Giant    (What you currently have - IN YOUR MOUTH - is art!)
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? (For the Preston Sturges allusion & so much more)
2001 Monsters Inc.    (Put that thing back where it came from or so help me...!)
2002 Lilo & Stitch    (It's hard to be weird, whether you're a girl or an alien experiment)
2003 Peter Pan    (best adaptation yet of this story)
2004 Hellboy     (I love everything about this movie)
2005 Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit  (My favorite W&G)
2006 Penelope    (Modern fairy tale with a very cool cast)
2007 Hot Fuzz   (The soundtrack alone wins for me, but movie is so delightful)
2008 Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (So English. Hilarious & heartbreaking.)
2009 Star Trek   (Trek is back! Nimoy is back! Joy!)
2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World    (I'm team Knives)
2011 The Muppets   (For embodying my nostalgic love perfectly)
2012 The Avengers   (Joss Whedon! Agent Coulson!)
2013 Belle    (Gets my 18th century groove on in a big way - lovely film)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy   (It's all about Rocket and Groot)
2015 Mad Max: Fury Road    (Motorcycle matriarchs - heck, yeah)
2016 Star Trek Beyond    (Trek done right - plus, Simon Pegg!)

Since it's only March, it's too early to declare a favorite for 2017, but it looks like a full year of contenders. Hopefully it will end up being another year where it's really hard to choose.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: EACH DAWN I DIE (1939)

As its grim title suggests, Each Dawn I Die (1939) is an explosive drama awash in death and violence, as only Warner Brothers' 1930s gangster and prison films could deliver them. William Keighley directs the parade of brutal injustice with James Cagney and George Raft as the chief victims of a horrifically corrupt system that destroys human beings without regard for their innocence or rehabilitation. Cagney's journalist hero has chosen the moral high ground as a crusader against graft and crime, but he ends up in the same place as Raft's sympathetic gangster, and in prison Cagney learns the extent of systemic cruelty. At once a riveting drama about loyalty and a scathing critique of inhumane American prisons, Each Dawn I Die gives Cagney and Raft terrific opportunities to showcase their dramatic talents.

Cagney plays hard-driving investigative reporter Frank Ross, whose efforts to uncover political corruption put him on a crooked governor's hit list. Kidnapped and set up for a drunken driving manslaughter charge, Frank gets sent to hard labor in prison, where he earns the respect of other inmates for his tough, principled behavior. He becomes especially close to gangster Hood Stacey (George Raft), who appreciates Frank's refusal to snitch. When Stacey asks Frank to help him escape, he promises to work to clear Frank's name on the outside, but Frank suffers horrifically for his loyalty while Stacey waffles about keeping his word.

Although it features a daring escape, numerous scenes of shocking cruelty, and a wildly violent gun battle finale, Each Dawn I Die is deeply invested in its story of an unlikely friendship forged in the most intolerable circumstances. Both Frank and Stacey appear as fully realized, complex characters, despite their tough talk and glaring eyes. We come to understand that they are not so different, that both men have reacted to a corrupt, unforgiving world in the way that seemed available to them. Frank fights, Stacey assimilates, but they suffer the same fate because the system devours both its enemies and its own. Cagney and Raft deliver performances that make these characters feel very real; each has a dynamic arc that allows the actors to demonstrate their range. Cagney is especially powerful in Frank's moments of anguish and rage, showing the darkness that even a good man can embrace when his humanity is denied. Raft shines as a dangerous tough guy early on, but his slow awakening to Frank's worth reminds us that he is still a human being, too, one who has become a criminal because he thought that was simply the way of the world.

The stories of the secondary characters add nuance to the central plot, with several supporting players giving very fine performances. Jane Bryan is lovely and determined as Frank's girlfriend, Joyce, who never stops trying to save him. The couple's brief moments together at the prison are tearjerker scenes of love and misery, especially when Joyce comes to see Frank after his long, agonizing months in the hole. Maxie Rosenbloom adds a hint of comic affability to the tragedy of his character, Fargo Red, an inmate who is just another everyman chewed up by the relentless system. Louis Jean Heydt plays a similar character, but purely for tragic effect; his Lassiter becomes a victim of the sadistic guard, Pete, performed with vicious brilliance by John Wray. It's a thankless task to play the kind of villain Wray takes on in Pete, since everything about him is deplorable, but he perfectly embodies the cruelty of the system as a whole. George Bancroft has a small but important role as Stacey's lawyer, and Victor Jory makes a brief but memorable appearance as Grayce, the corrupt head of the parole board who ensures that Frank's petition will be denied.

For more gangster drama from William Keighley, try 'G' Men (1935), Special Agent (1935), and Bullets or Ballots (1938). Catch Cagney as the gangster in The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949). George Raft, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, always looks at home in a tough guy role; he's best remembered for his role in Scarface (1932), but don't miss him in They Drive by Night (1940) and Some Like It Hot (1959). If classic prison movies appeal, return to the big house with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Brute Force (1947), or Caged (1950).