Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Searching for Silent Treasure on Paramount Plus

We signed up for Paramount Plus to watch Star Trek, which is probably why most people subscribe to the streaming service, but it has turned out to be a very interesting opportunity to watch classic movies that don't necessarily appear on other streamers. Classic movie fans still mourning the loss of Filmstruck mostly find their content on HBO Max, with its TCM hub, or the Criterion Channel, but the collapse of the DVD market has made old movies harder to find in general as streamers focus on original content instead of large libraries full of hidden gems. Venerable old studio Paramount, however, has less original content to offer and instead fills out its catalogue with lots of iconic and obscure features from its distant past, including a surprising number of silents. If you're looking for classic movies you haven't seen before, and especially if you're looking for silents, Paramount Plus might be worth your while, but the interface leaves the hard work of finding its buried treasure to you.

I originally wrote about classic movies on CBS All Access, as it was then called, back in 2020, so I wanted to follow up with a look at its current catalogue under the Paramount Plus moniker. The service still has quite a large collection of classic movies on offer, ranging from comedies and dramas to horror and Westerns, although your best method of finding them is to search the entire category A-Z for each genre because you can't search the library using people's names or general terms like "silent" or "classic." Mixed into the groups are numerous silent features, but you'll only identify them as such if you recognize the titles or click on them to get to a brief info page that includes the release date. You can follow one listing to a group of similar films, so once you find a silent picture you can more easily turn up others, but it's a haphazard method of discovery, for sure.

In spite of the effort it takes to find them, Paramount Plus does have some real gems tucked into its collection. Here are a few of the silent movies currently on offer:


The Mark of Zorro
(1920)

The Lost World (1925)

Little Annie Rooney (1925)

The Black Pirate (1926)

Sparrows (1926)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

The General (1926)

 

 

         The Thief of Bagdad 1924) 

         The Eagle (1925)

         Blood and Sand (1922)

        Orphans of the Storm (1921)

The films themselves come from several different studios, but the prints included on Paramount Plus seem, after a casual survey, to be generally good quality, unlike the unwatchable prints sometimes offered up by Amazon Prime. Thus far my experiences watching silent movies on the service have been good ones, even if I would really like a better way to search for them and better information about them in their listings. 

Have you watched classic movies on Paramount Plus? Have you uncovered any hidden gems from the silent era lurking in its collection? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Five Favorite Films: Claude Rains Villains

With his distinctive English voice and intensely intelligent manner, Claude Rains made himself at home in a wide variety of memorable roles, although he was more often the heavy or a supporting character instead of a leading man. Born in London in 1889, the actor grew up in the English theater scene but made an indelible mark with his first big film role as the unseen protagonist of James Whale's horror classic, The Invisible Man (1933). He would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and even though he never took an Oscar home he became one of classic Hollywood's iconic stars. Rains didn't always play villains, but his dark characters are delightfully complicated, so my list here compiles five of my favorite Rains rascals, each a slippery cinematic sinner worthy of your time.


The Invisible Man
(1933)

It's no surprise that Rains would become a favorite Hollywood heavy after his breakthrough performance in this Universal horror adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells. Completely unseen except for the last shot of the picture, Rains nevertheless triumphs as the increasingly insane Dr. Jack Griffin, who uses himself as a test subject for his invisibility formula. Even more than his other horror films for Universal, The Invisible Man lets director James Whale indulge his very dark sense of humor, and Rains goes over the top with Griffin's murderous, mad antics.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Rains is just one of many great stars packing into Sherwood Forest for this glorious Technicolor adventure, but his Prince John is a villain you'll love to hate. Sadistic, petty, and vain, the prince usurps the English throne in the absence of his brother, King Richard (Ian Hunter), only to be plagued by the rebellious Robin (Errol Flynn) and his merry band. Fans of the Disney version from the 1973 animated Robin Hood will enjoy comparing the vocal performance of Peter Ustinov with Rains' live action incarnation.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director Frank Capra spins a story of political idealism clashing with corruption and cynical power in this beloved picture. James Stewart stars as naive newcomer Jefferson Smith, who is suddenly thrust into the machinations of the US Senate. Rains plays Joseph Paine, the senior Senator who is Stewart's hero and mentor, but he turns out to be far less noble than Jefferson originally believes. Paine is one of Rains' more realistic antagonists, not so much outright evil as self-interested and jaded, but Rains gives a terrific performance in the role and earned his first nomination for Best Supporting Actor as a result. 

Notorious (1946)

Rains gets to be a subtler, more devious sort of villain in this Hitchcock thriller, but he's still delightfully bad as the Nazi Ingrid Bergman is asked to spy on by the US government. Rains' character, Alexander Sebastian, marries Alicia (Bergman) but is also willing to murder her in order to protect himself and his secrets. His duplicitous nature gives Rains plenty of opportunities to be both charming and chilling, especially in scenes with Alexander's sinister mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). The role earned Rains his final Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The Unsuspected (1947)   

This noir mystery from director Michael Curtiz is another role that makes great use of Rains' fantastic voice by casting him as the popular host of a radio mystery show. Unfortunately, Rains' suave radio star, Victor Grandison, goes from just talking about murder to actually committing it. Rains has a much more central role in this picture as the "unsuspected" murderer of the title, but it's pretty obvious from the beginning, in spite of the title, that Victor is up to no good. The movie also stars Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, Constance Bennett, and Hurd Hatfield.

For more of the darker side of Claude Rains, see Kings Row (1942), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and Angel on My Shoulder (1946). Get a sense of his range with The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Rains made his final screen appearance as one of the greatest villains of human history, King Herod the Great, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

LEGO Star Wars: Be My BBY

People who know me in real life or who read this blog frequently already know that I love combining my passions for LEGO and movies. As a Gen Xer I have a particular soft spot for the original Star Wars trilogy, and of course I love Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie was a true princess of Classic Hollywood as well as an icon in her own right. I've been enjoying the appearance of young Leia on the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+, and I think casting did a great job choosing Vivien Lyra Blair. 

Here's a recent LEGO MOC that celebrates my love for A New Hope and the love we fans feel for Princess Leia and her scruffy looking nerf herder, Han Solo. I know Han and Leia didn't get together until later, but the pun was just too good to resist, and this piece was built for a Valentine's Day themed contest in my club, TNVLC. Here we see Han and Leia (or maybe it's Harrison and Carrie?) stealing a kiss just before the Battle of Yavin.

 

BE MY BBY

 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The What-If Alternate Timeline of CRUELLA (2021)

When it first arrived, Disney's 2021 reboot of the various films based on 101 Dalmatians was widely discussed as yet another "prequel" to a well-known Disney property, but in order to appreciate Cruella fully you have to stop thinking about it as a prequel and instead consider it as an alternate timeline narrative similar to the multiverse arcs now at work in the Marvel franchise. This is NOT the story of how the villain of the 1961 animated movie became that character, and it's not the story of the villain from the 1996 live action movie, either. Instead, Emma Stone's version of Cruella is a character with a narrative arc all her own, distinct from those of the other Cruellas but still affected by many of the same elements with alternate versions of the same characters. She's much like the central Loki character played by Tom Hiddleston in the Disney Plus series; she is one of many possible Cruella variants, some of whom are truly villainous and some of whom are dynamic enough to become protagonists in their own right rather than merely antagonists to more conventionally heroic characters. When read this way, Cruella becomes a much more interesting and engaging movie, one that rewrites the iconic villain, sure, but also one that reaches deep into the sources of inspiration that formed the original Disney character.


Fidelity to the 1961 animated classic is already an odd demand, not only because live action versions of that story were already made in the late 90s but because the original Disney movie is itself unfaithful to its source material in several significant ways. Dodie Smith's beloved 1956 children's novel features many characters and scenes that aren't in the Disney film. A third adult Dalmatian (the one actually named Perdita) is removed completely, with a dog originally named Missus assuming her name and erasing her from the story. The novel's Roger is wealthy because he is a "financial wizard" and not a struggling musician, so the family can afford all of their Dalmatians even when they end up with 101 of them (note that the 101st Dalmatian of the novel also isn't in the movie because he's the liver spotted love interest of the original Perdita). The Cruella of the book is more explicitly demonic and even more vicious than the movie version; she is also married to a submissive furrier who enables her obsession with fur coats. The changes don't make the Disney adaptation a bad movie, but they do make it a significantly different story from the novel. The live action versions get farther afield still, making Roger an American video game creator, Anita a fashion designer, and Cruella a fashion house owner and Anita's employer. In fact, the versions are so different (and set in different eras to boot) that the 2021 movie cannot possibly function as a true prequel to any of them.

Tallulah!

Instead, Cruella is its own story, a reinvention of the character that combines her most iconic traits with bits and pieces of the previous versions in order to make her a dynamic protagonist rather than a static villain. The movie does not attempt to make us like or forgive the other Cruellas; we like this new Cruella partly because she isn't them. Our glimpse of her childhood recalls the schoolgirl connection with Anita from the novel, her mannerisms are taken from the 1961 Disney film, and her fashion career is borrowed from the 1996 movie, but she is not simply a younger version of any of these characters. Disney opts to do something different by mining the tradition of the anti-heroine as filtered through one of the most important inspirations for the 1961 Cruella, the legendary actress and all around hellraiser Tallulah Bankhead. The film even signals the affiliation with a clip of Tallulah demonstrating her distinctive, throaty laugh in Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 thriller, Lifeboat. We see it play on a television set in a room with Estella/Cruella early in the story. Bankhead, known for her genius, self-destructive behavior, terrible driving, and theatrical personality, was definitely no saint, but this new version of Cruella has her charisma and charm as well as her less likeable qualities. It's refreshing to see a complicated, difficult, too-much female character be the heroine of her own life without having to be either a traditionally good person or a completely amoral anti-heroine of the Becky Sharp variety.

Because this Cruella is not the same as the previous versions, she can make different choices and develop different values. She loves fashion but isn't specifically obsessed with fur. She has a found family that she mistreats at times but ultimately loves, which includes several dogs. She is even the person who gives Pongo and Perdita to Roger and Anita, which she certainly wouldn't do if she wanted to make Dalmatian fur coats. Near the end of the movie, Cruella says about the Baroness: "The good thing about evil people is that you can always trust them to do something, well, evil." Cruella, despite her name, is not that kind of person, because her Estella side makes her capable of doing good. Currently, a sequel to the movie is in the works, and most fans and critics seem to expect it to launch us into the more familiar dog-napping, coat-making territory of the original story, but I really hope it doesn't go in that direction, because this Cruella deserves better. It's certainly possible that she might become a newer version of the Baroness, the murderous mother whom she deposes in the film, and therefore ruthless enough to become a full-blown villain, but it would be much more satisfying to see her continue to make bold new choices for herself, to continue to be the future she embodies in Cruella and not the past that she sees as the Baroness. To rope this Cruella back into the framework of the original story would be a grave disservice to her and to viewers who fell for her eccentric, outlandish personality.

I've watched Cruella a couple of times now, and while I have concerns about Disney's persistent efforts to strip mine its own properties, I think this movie is one of the best live action treatments of a classic Disney story and far more interesting and fun than the previous attempts to cash in on the Dalmatians' popularity, largely because it isn't about the dogs. It's fun, it's visually engaging, it features terrific performances from Stone and Emma Thompson, and it offers us a Disney "heroine" who is very different from the usual crowd of princesses and whose transgressive modernity is part of her appeal. I don't care that it isn't actually a prequel to 101 Dalmatians; that's why it works. This Cruella might well be brilliant and bad and a little bit mad, but she's more 70s counterculture rock goddess than maniacal puppy murderer, and I'd like to see any additional films about her continue to give her the freedom to be her own version of herself.

 


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Classic Movie Duos: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant only made four movies together, but each one is worth watching for the formidable duo and the ways in which they are markedly different from one another. Two of their collaborations, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), are highly regarded and much beloved, but their other two pictures, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Holiday (1938), are less celebrated, and, in fact, three of their four movies together were originally box office duds. With only four films to get through, it's a worthwhile project to sit and down and watch all of these movies as a group in order to appreciate the ways in which the stars work together and the career trajectories that they were charting when these pictures were being made.

Hepburn and Grant in Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Hepburn and Grant first worked together on the most obscure of the four films, the gender-bending dramedy, Sylvia Scarlett (1935), in which Hepburn takes the title role and Grant plays the English conman who becomes her mentor and travel companion. George Cukor, who directed all but one of the pair's collaborations, is at the helm here, too. This is the only one of the four movies in which Hepburn and Grant do not play romantic partners, and in retrospect it seems odd that they don't get together here, especially since Sylvia's partner of choice, an egotistical painter played by Brian Aherne, seems just as problematic a mate as Grant's slippery but ultimately compassionate con artist. For Grant the movie was a step along the way to stardom, but for Hepburn it came during a troublesome slump that saw her cast in one flop after another. It's not a perfect movie, but Hepburn's cross-dressing provides a delightful opportunity for the star to show off her athleticism and escape the glamorous trap of a typical leading lady role. 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The second outing, Bringing Up Baby (1938), switches to Howard Hawks for direction, but that change did not save the screwball comedy from a bad box office showing on its release. Hawks thought that the movie flopped because all of its characters are crazy, but it has since soared to the status of a beloved masterpiece of its genre. The wacky story of a free spirit socialite (Hepburn) who wrecks the measured life of a paleontologist (Grant) casts our two stars in very different roles from their previous collaboration, and each gives a fantastic performance. Hepburn makes the leap to full-blown comedy and is simply hilarious, while Grant embodies a meeker personality driven to distraction by the outrageous obstacles he faces. While the movie didn't immediately pull Hepburn's career out of its slump, it has become a favorite film for her fans, and it set the two stars up for more romantic pairings in their next two films.

Holiday (1938)

Holiday
(1938) came out shortly after Bringing Up Baby but found the two stars and director George Cukor at Columbia instead of RKO, which had made the two previous films. Once again the movie failed to gain traction with audiences, although the critical response was more positive. Adapted from a hit play by Philip Barry, the story once again put Hepburn and Grant into a mix of comedy and drama but this time set them up as characters who are obviously destined to get together, never mind that Grant's upwardly mobile protagonist, Johnny Case, opens the movie as the intended groom of the wrong sister. Hepburn once again plays a free spirit socialite, but this time family pressure has kept her penned in and unhappy until Grant arrives as a breath of fresh air in the oppressively lavish mansion. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon also liven up the place as Johnny's friends, and Grant gets to show off a little of his acrobatic skill with Hepburn very game as his partner. While it's not as hellbent for hilarity as Bringing Up Baby, Holiday deserves attention for its compelling performances and its artful casting of the two leads, who are each just right for the parts they play.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hepburn fans already know that the last of the duo's collaborations, The Philadelphia Story (1940), proved to be her big comeback. The romantic comedy from MGM picked up six Oscar nominations, including nods for Hepburn, Cukor, and supporting actress Ruth Hussey, with Jimmy Stewart winning for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart taking home the award for Best Screenplay. Like Holiday, this movie was adapted from a play by Philip Barry, but in this case the original role had been written specifically for Hepburn, who also owned the film rights thanks to Howard Hughes. The story opens as if it might be a sequel to Holiday, with Hepburn and Grant's romance gone sour and the lovers now divorced, but Grant's character, C.K. Dexter Haven, isn't willing to give up his ex-wife to a new groom without a fight. Tracy Lord is another of Hepburn's socialite roles, beautiful and smart but rather spoiled, although Tracy is not about to be bossed around by anyone, especially her wayward father. 

Although only the final film proved to be a box office success, each of the Hepburn-Grant collaborations contributed to that last production in different ways, whether by building the relationships between the stars and their director, refining the character types the stars played, or establishing that Philip Barry's work was a good fit for the pair. Hepburn would make one more film adapted from a Barry play, Without Love (1945), which was also originally written for her, but in that picture her costar would be her longtime companion and collaborator, Spencer Tracy. While Hepburn and Grant would each make many more films, their work together ended on a high note with The Philadelphia Story.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)

Although the story really comes from H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963) bills itself as one of the director's Edgar Allan Poe films and features all of the familiar trappings of those Gothic horror tales. Vincent Price is, as usual, in the lead, here playing a dual role as an evil warlock and his identical descendant, with Debra Paget making her final screen appearance as the descendant's long-suffering wife. The constant fog, gloomy period setting, and well-established genre tropes ensure that fans of Corman's other films will find plenty to appreciate here, but the chief attractions beyond Price and Paget are a gaggle of creepy mutant villagers and supporting performances from Lon Chaney, Jr. and Elisha Cook, Jr. The Haunted Palace is one of five films Corman directed in 1963, and it's not the first Corman picture anyone should see, but it's a fun outing for its iconic stars and worth the time if you enjoy the other Corman and Price collaborations.

Price appears first as the powerful necromancer Joseph Curwen, who conspires with his mistress, Hester (Cathie Merchant), to bewitch young women and bring them to his castle for unspeakable occult practices. The local villagers form a vigilante mob and burn Curwen at the stake, but not before he curses them and their descendants. Over a century later, Curwen's identical great-great-grandson, Charles Dexter Ward, inherits the castle and arrives in the town of Arkham with his lovely wife, Ann (Debra Paget). The village men (played by the same actors who appeared as their ancestors) make the Wards unwelcome, but Curwen's spirit soon possesses Charles and resumes his diabolical schemes of necromancy and revenge.

The dual roles of Joseph Curwen and Charles Dexter Ward give Vincent Price plenty to do, especially when he gets to play the two personalities warring for dominance over Ward's mind. Greenish makeup on the warlocks' faces helps us know when Curwen has control, but Price embodies the shift convincingly without the visual cue. Ward is a perfectly normal gentleman who loves his wife and doesn't believe in supernatural curses, while Curwen is a cunning sadist who is more than willing to murder anyone who crosses him. Of course, Curwen is destined to get the upper hand and wreak havoc, which ensures that Price can cut loose with his villain and make the most of a thoroughly terrible character. His sudden cruelty to his devoted wife leads her to suspect that evil is at work in the castle, but over time Curwen gets better at impersonating Ward so that he can continue his schemes in the secret chambers underground.

Debra Paget gives a solid performance as the worried wife, although she's the only developed female character in the whole story and spends most of her time looking frightened. Curwen is supposed to be obsessed with his dead mistress, Hester, but we don't see enough of her to understand his determination to resurrect her even though it's a distraction from the mission he and the other necromancers are supposed to be accomplishing. Lon Chaney Jr. has several scenes with Price but is subdued throughout; by 1963 he's long past his heyday as a horror star and not really credible as a fiendish immortal necromancer. The villagers, both past and present, are played by Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook, Jr., Frank Maxwell, and John Dierkes, and of the lot Maxwell has the most scenes because his doctor character tries to befriend and assist the Wards, although Cook is probably the most fun to watch because he plays fear-induced panic so brilliantly. Almost all of the named characters are rather dramatically upstaged by the deformed mutant villagers, descendants of the women Corwen bewitched and the ancient godlike thing he keeps locked in his underground lair. Cook's character, Peter, hints at the way the unholy mating has tainted the bloodlines of Arkham by revealing his own webbed hand, while Gordon's Edgar Weeden keeps his violent mutant son imprisoned in his home. Sadly, we don't know what, if anything, becomes of the mutants at the end of the story, since the Curwen/Ward conflict dominates the third act.

Different Corman fans will have their own favorites, but I recommend House of Usher (1960), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) if you want to see some of the best of the Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. You'll find both Price and Debra Paget in The Ten Commandments (1956), while Elisha Cook Jr. and Price both appear to great effect in William Castle's classic shocker, House on Haunted Hill (1959). See Lon Chaney Jr. in better times in his most memorable role as the ill-fated Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), or check out his dramatic roles in Of Mice and Men (1939) or High Noon (1952).

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Trek Noir: Out of the Past in Deep Space Nine's "Necessary Evil"

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for the Deep Space Nine episode, "Necessary Evil"

 

I'm currently making my way through the entirety of the Star Trek TV series, Deep Space Nine, which I never got to watch regularly during its first run, and so far it has been a richly rewarding experience. While all of the episodes have their merits, I was especially struck by Season Two's eighth episode, titled "Necessary Evil." This one stands out from the others and from most of the older Star Trek shows for its serious - and successful - evocation of classic film noir to tell a dark, duplicitous story about events that unfold before the Cardassians leave Bajor and the Federation takes charge of the space station. While the Star Trek universe is traditionally a positive space with an optimistic vision of the future, this episode uses the tropes of classic noir to investigate the dark past that haunts Deep Space Nine, and it calls into question the motives and relationships of some of its most complex characters.

The Next Generation crew in "The Big Goodbye"

Star Trek shows have been playing with genre since the original series, but the sensibility of true noir is at odds with the core values of the Trek universe. When The Next Generation ventures into noir territory in the first season episode, "The Big Goodbye," it does so as a holodeck adventure with Captain Picard adopting the role of fictional private eye Dixon Hill, a figure very much inspired by Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett's iconic Sam Spade in both the book and film versions of The Maltese Falcon. The holodeck story is intended to be a nostalgic amusement for Picard and his friends, but an external event causes the safety protocols of the holodeck to disengage, thus thrusting the crew members into a more dangerous adventure than they had expected. While the episode includes real peril for the crew, the noir element of the experience is artificial and contained, and it is also pointedly self-conscious, an homage to noir rather than an embodiment of it.

Such is not the case on the Deep Space Nine episode, where a dark past of Cardassian control and Bajoran resistance creates opportunities for a noir plot that exists as part of the characters' reality. It's not surprising that a series with persistent connections to Casablanca (1942) might see the shadowy world of noir as fruitful territory to mine for narrative; the show even gets around to a blatant revision of Casablanca later in Season Two with the episode, "Profit and Loss" (with Quark, of course, as the stand-in for Bogart's bar owner Rick). In "Necessary Evil," the series takes us back and forth between its past and present to explore what life on the space station was like before the Bajoran liberation, which also evokes shades of Casablanca and the Nazi Occupation. That past is a dark place, where everyone's motives are suspect and our core characters meet for the first time under grim circumstances. It's a perfect setting for a very unusual example of tech noir, the (literal and figurative) space where noir and science fiction meet.

"Necessary Evil" focuses on the past between Odo and Kira.
 

The story opens in the present, when Quark is hired to retrieve a hidden, valuable item for an attractive Bajoran widow. Quark then becomes the victim of an attempted murder, and security chief Odo sets about uncovering Quark's assailant. His investigation takes him back to his first case on the station, when the Cardassian Gul Dukat assigned him to solve the murder of the widow's husband, a Bajoran merchant. The lead suspect in that case turned out to be the Bajoran Kira, then newly arrived on the station but now Odo's friend and colleague in the present. As Odo tries to uncover the present crime he begins to understand more about the murder from the past, but his realizations threaten his relationship with Kira.

Unlike Captain Picard in "The Big Goodbye," Odo is an unwitting noir protagonist and utterly unsentimental about the past, whether fictional or real. As an alien shape-shifter with no knowledge of his own home planet or people, Odo is a perfect noir lead - alone, aloof, cynical, and observant by necessity. He provides a classic noir narration of events only because Commander Sisko has asked him to create a record of the investigation. His failure to solve his first case haunts Odo, making him determined to solve not only the present crime but also the original murder. Gul Dukat claims that Odo is an ideal agent of justice in this case because his outsider status makes him neutral to both the occupying Cardassians and the subjugated Bajorans, but that neutrality is as questionable as Gul Dukat's explanation for Odo's assignment. Odo does, however, have a strong and clearly stated interest in justice, which makes him dogged in pursuit of the guilty parties in both the past and the present.

A Ferengi and a femme fatale meet in "Necessary Evil."

The character who most complicates Odo's sense of justice is Kira, the Bajoran woman who arrives at the station just before the original murder and is set up with the hallmarks of noir's good-bad girl and mystery's red herring (see Andrew Spicer's book Film Noir for a discussion of the genre's good-bad girl type). The widow claims that Kira was having an affair with her husband and is thus the obvious suspect, but the present tense crime has already depicted the widow as a classic femme fatale, so we, the audience, don't trust her. Kira denies the affair but eventually confesses to Odo that she is a saboteur for the Bajoran resistance and could not have committed the murder because she was busy causing damage elsewhere at that time. Odo protects Kira from Gul Dukat and leaves the murder unsolved, a situation that drives him all the more when the attack on Quark recalls the earlier crime. Finally, in the present, Kira reveals to Odo that she did, in fact, kill the Bajoran merchant when he discovered her trying to steal the same list of Bajoran collaborators that the widow hires Quark to find. The twist ending reveals Kira to be a better liar, and a less reliable associate, than Odo imagined, and it's not clear if he's more shocked by her duplicity or his own credulity. The episode concludes with the relationship between the two unresolved and the future of their friendship uncertain. It's a very noir ending for the episode even if both of the major characters remain alive and still working on the station afterward.

Everything else about this episode contributes to its noir sensibility. The scenes in the past use dark, blue lighting to cast shadows and uncertainty over the characters, while the other characters around Odo and Kira also fall into classic noir types, including Quark as the petty criminal in over his head and the widow as a beautiful femme fatale, complete with white evening gown and seductive manner. Odo's voice over narration, a staple of the genre, helps us navigate the shifts between past and present, but the two markedly different visual styles make the time periods quite distinct already. Gul Dukat, technically Odo's client in this investigation, has ulterior motives that he does not disclose, and the viewer comes away with the sense that "justice" is really a slippery idea. The smaller problems - who killed the merchant and who attacked Quark - might be solved, but larger and more unsettling questions persist. The episode presents, in abbreviated form, all the characteristics of classic noir, and it never winks or tips its hand about doing it. There's nothing cute about "Necessary Evil," which is part of the reason it's so good.

If you're interested in the particular pleasures of tech noir, check out film-length examples like Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), and Minority Report (2002). If you're a Star Trek fan new to classic noir, start with iconic favorites like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and, as my post title suggests, Out of the Past (1947).

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Making the News with The Muppets

 Some years ago my dear friend and fellow popular culture scholar Anissa Graham and I co-edited two books about the works of Jim Henson. They're essay anthologies featuring scholarly discussions by a wide variety of authors, including us, and they were a lot of fun to create. Both of the books were published by McFarland and are still in print today. The first is Kermit Culture and the second is The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson. You'll find them on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions, and they can be purchased from other book retailers, as well.

As a result of our work on those books, we sometimes get to do cool Muppet related stuff, and this week brought an unexpected opportunity to talk about the Muppets with a journalist from CNN. I thought some of my blog readers might enjoy the article, so here's the link:

"The Muppets are having a moment - just when we need them most" (CNN, Jan 23, 2022)

I really enjoyed talking to CNN's Scottie Andrew about the Muppets, and I think the article is a great discussion of their current cultural importance. Luckily for Scottie, it's a print article, so she didn't have to worry about suffering the fate of the Muppet News Flash anchor on The Muppet Show!

If you're interested in more of my Muppet related shenanigans, you can listen to my 2013 interview with the BBC radio program, "Last Word," marking the death of Jane Henson. I also appear as a guest on a couple of episodes of "Movin' Right Along: A Muppet Movie Podcast," hosted by ToughPigs Muppet super fans Ryan Roe and Anthony Strand.

For more Muppet posts here on the blog, try these:

Classic Films in Focus: THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me: Reflections on The Muppets

Classic Movie Tourist: A Day in Hollywood 

Christmas Movie Blogathon: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Classic Movie Stars on The Muppet Show 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Fantastic at 50: Classic Movie Actresses

Earlier this month I celebrated my 50th birthday, one of those milestone events that feels important even if the pandemic kept me from doing much to mark the occasion. Several years ago, when I was 42, I wrote a post about 42 year old classic movie actresses and the films they made at that age, so this seems like a good time to revisit the idea and think about stars who enjoyed significant moments in their careers when they were 50. Of course, being 50 in 2022 is quite a bit different from being 50 in 1952, and Hollywood actresses in the studio era faced tremendous age discrimination. The women who managed long careers did so through versatility, perseverance, talent, and sheer determination. Here are a few of my favorite classic movie actresses and the films they made in their 50th year.

Katharine Hepburn, born in 1907, made the great romantic comedy Desk Set in 1957, one of her many pictures with costar Spencer Tracy. It's a funny, sweet story that highlights middle aged romance and women with careers, and it's actually one of my favorite movies that the pair made together. Of course, Hepburn would go on to even more great roles and Oscar nominations after 50, including three Best Actress wins.

Hepburn's Desk Set costar, Joan Blondell, was a year older, but she also enjoyed a long career. In 1956 the 50 year old star appeared as part of the ensemble cast in The Opposite Sex, a remake of the 1939 hit, The Women. Although she's best remembered today for her dozens of Pre-Code and other 1930s films, Blondell went right on acting until her death in 1979.

Bette Davis, born in 1908, was mostly doing television work in 1958, with a couple of guest spots on different series over the course of her 50th year. Even top stars like Davis and Crawford found big film roles harder to come by as they aged, especially if they wanted to avoid playing supporting characters like mothers to younger leading ladies. Davis, however, would eventually lean into horror roles and make the most of her lifelong ability to transform herself into extreme characters. Like Blondell, she would continue acting right up until her death in 1989.

Gloria Swanson was 51 by the time Sunset Blvd. appeared in theaters in 1950, but the actress really was 50 years old when she played the 50 year old Norma Desmond. It's a role that digs into the crisis of aging for a Hollywood actress, and it's not exactly flattering. Still, Swanson is brilliant in the film, and it's a shame the movie didn't inspire a revival for the star. Her leading man, William Holden, was still enjoying big movie roles well into his 50s, but Swanson, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Sunset Blvd., moved on to television appearances and semi-retirement.

Of course, some actresses fared better after 50 than others, with comic character actresses being some of the best at maintaining their careers. Long-legged Charlotte Greenwood made Down Argentine Way (1940), Mary Wickes appeared in Cimmaron (1960), Marjorie Main made seven films in 1940, and her friend Spring Byington took on ten roles in her 50th year in 1936. They had never been famous for their glamorous youth and beauty, and they trooped along through the decades in supporting roles that allowed them to keep working long after the starlet types had been forced into retirement.

When I look at modern actresses who are turning 50 this year, I see Cameron Diaz, Rebecca Romijn, Toni Collette, Jennifer Garner, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all of whom are still working and even thriving with their careers. I doubt they'll have to resort to hagsploitation roles like Davis and Crawford, and it's encouraging to think that we see 50 differently now than we did during the classic movie era. Personally, I'm feeling pretty good about being 50, and I plan to celebrate with several special blog posts in the weeks ahead.

If you're turning 50 this year, too, happy birthday, and remember, Jessica Tandy won an Oscar at 80, so you're definitely not too old to accomplish something big!

Monday, January 10, 2022

2021 Movie Log in Review

It's that time again, when I post my my movie log in review for the previous year and reflect on another year's worth of movie watching. 2021 continued to be dominated by the pandemic, which affected my movie viewing in several ways. I saw exactly one new release in an actual theater in 2021, and that was the disappointing Marvel offering, The Eternals. Alabama has done almost nothing to curb Covid cases, and theaters just haven't felt safe or worth the risk. Vaccinations did allow me to return to my lifetime learners and retirement community residents for film programs in the summer and fall, and I really enjoyed being with them again. With my family still at home for much of the year, newer movies remained a more popular group choice in the evenings, and I had less time to squeeze in classics that I hadn't seen before. We also watched a lot of British murder mysteries and Disney+ TV series.

Here's the list for 2021 - let's hope that we'll eventually see some normalcy again in 2022!


January (15)

The Return of the King (2003)

The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

Valley Girl (2020)

Dragonslayer (1981)

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

The New Mutants (2020)

Fisherman's Friends (2019)

Judy (2019)

Never Too Late (2020)

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Max Reload and the Nether Blasters (2020)

Evil Under the Sun (1981)

The Mirror Crack'd (1980)

House (1977)

The History of Future Folk (2012)

 
February
(9)

Yojimbo (1961)

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

Space Sweepers (2020)

Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1997)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

Justice League Dark: Apokalips War (2020)

 

March (2)

Legally Blonde (2001)

Stagecoach (1939)

 

April (6)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)

Mystery Men (1999)

Dark Shadows (2012)

The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

 

May (7)

Scooby Doo (2002)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Summer Stock (1950)

The Harvey Girls (1946)

Separate Tables (1958)

Rachel and the Stranger (1948)

Bathing Beauty (1944)

 

June (11)

Streets of Fire (1984)

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

42nd Street (1933)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

In the Heights (2021)

Luca (2021)

Suicide Squad (2018)

Roxanne (1987)

Hidalgo (2004)

 

July (16)

Demolition Man (1993)

The Mummy (1999)

Black Widow (2021)

The Avengers (2012)

Pygmalion (1938)

My Fair Lady (1964)

Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)

She's All That (1999)

Victor/Victoria (1982)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Opposite Sex (1956)

Miss Congeniality (2000)

Ocean's 8 (2018)

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Jungle Cruise (2021)

The Truman Show (1994)

 

August (7)

Ivanhoe (1954)

The Birdcage (1996)

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2020)

The Green Knight (2021)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park II: The Lost World (1997)

Cruella (2021)

 

September (4)

Cinderella (2021)

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

The 39 Steps (1935)

The Haunting (1963)

 

October (11)

They Drive by Night (1940)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The Duff (2015)

The Haunted Hotel (2021)

Death on the Nile (2004)

Good News (1947)

House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Again!

Carnival of Souls (1963)

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)

Monster House (2006)

Horror of Dracula (1958)

 

November (7)

The Sparks Brothers (2020)

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Free Guy (2021)

The Harder They Fall (2021)

The Eternals (2021)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) - 2x this month


December (16)

Love Hard (2021)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Single All the Way (2021)

Mixtape (2021)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Matrix Resurrections (2021)

Encanto (2021)

Scrooged (1988)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins II (1990)

Love and Monsters (2020)

White Christmas (1954) 


Total film count for 2021: 111