Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The One Year Switch Halftime Report



So we're halfway done with the great experiment and it's gone better than I expected so far, and I don't just mean in terms of numbers. The pageview numbers are fairly consistent compared to those from last year, but at this point I'm no longer interested in comparisons between this year and last. This year has become its own thing, and I'm convinced that my audience is still here, and that I haven't put anybody off with the change of format - which is good to know. So thank you to all of you who have stuck with me this far!

Monday, June 29, 2015

New release roundup for June '15

Love and Mercy. I knew that Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson had issues, but I never knew the full extent of them until watching this fine biopic chronicling two crucial periods of his life: as a younger man, putting together the seminal album Pet Sounds, and as an older man, fighting mental illness. John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Wilson, and both are quite good. One unusual aspect of this movie is the use of sound: in addition to all the great Beach Boys music, Wilson claims to hear voices in his head, and the film's aural mix combines both dialogue and music into a trippy swirl at different intervals, including the beginning. There's also a slow 360-degree pan of a studio where the rehearsed music comes at you from various angles. Be sure to see this in a theater with an excellent sound system.

Inside Out. I once wrote an autobiographical comic strip years ago that was not unlike this premise - individual aspects of a human personality bickering - only the approach was completely different, as was the story. I seriously doubt I have a case for a suit, and in any event, Pixar has done it a million times better. Actually, this reminded me a whole lot more of the original Toy Story - fantastic beings in service to a human child led by a gung-ho, can-do hero archetype who gets separated from the group with his counterpart. Lots more action and suspense here than I would've expected from a story that suggests something more cerebral and dramatic. And as for the short film "Lava" that preceded it, if Disney is smart, they'll mount an Oscar campaign for that song.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Double Indemnity in one scene

The "...And Scene!" Blogathon involves close analysis of a single scene from an Old Hollywood film, hosted by Sister Celluloid. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the site.

I've talked about Double Indemnity before, and I think we all agree that it's a terrific movie. (Did you know that it was inspired by a real-life murder that took place here in Queens?) For this blogathon, we're gonna try something different, namely, taking a closer look at one scene in that movie. The scene I've chosen is a pretty important one; it features all three principal actors, albeit in an indirect way for one; and it's a crucial turning point in the story. First, the basic facts:

Double Indemnity (1944)
directed by Billy Wilder
cinematography by John Seitz
editorial supervision by Doane Harrison

For those of you haven't seen the movie (and seriously, if you haven't seen this, don't wait one day more), a quick summary of prior events: insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls hard for desperate housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and together, they plot to murder her husband by secretly getting him to sign an insurance policy in which they'll collect big time on the dough, and them bumping him off as he's about to go on a train trip. The plan seems to work at first. The head man at the insurance company initially believes the husband committed suicide, but Walter's immediate supervisor, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), definitively rules that out as a possibility. That night, Phyllis calls Neff, wanting to come up to his apartment, but before she arrives, Keyes shows up unexpectedly. And that's where we stand as the following scene takes place...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Edith Head

Okay, so was that character in The Incredibles actually based on Edith Head or not? According to the Pixar Wiki, Incredibles director Brad Bird denied it on Twitter. Whether or not you believe him is another story, although why would he lie about it? I don't know. (The Wiki cites several other possible inspirations for the character.)

In the coming-up-on-five years I've written this blog, I've rarely, if ever, talked about fashion in movies, so what better way to do so than to talk about the industry's most iconic fashion designer, winner of eight Academy Awards and the woman responsible for making some of the most beautiful men and women in Hollywood even more so?

When it comes to a fabulous dress in a movie, I mean one that will be remembered in fifty years or more, my experience is that most of the time, you just know it when you see it: that big poofy number Deborah Kerr wore when she danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I. Those slinky, matching red outfits Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Rita Hayworth's strapless body-hugger in Gilda. One could argue that it's not so much the dress as it is the woman who wears it, but I say it's a little bit of both. As for the fellas, I'll be honest, the only time I really notice what a dude's wearing in a movie is in a period piece - or maybe a genre movie! Hollywood has always been about selling glamour, and clothes were a major part of that.

Head achieved the fame she did as a costume designer despite having lied about her abilities. She learned art primarily through night school classes and claimed someone else's sketches for her own when she applied for a costume sketch artist job at Paramount in 1924. It worked, though, and by 1938 she was top dog at the studio's costume department, the first woman to hold such a position at a major studio. While she was occasionally loaned out to other studios, Paramount was her home for over forty years.

So what made her so in-demand? Let's look at five examples of her work (click on the names to see the costumes):

Note the sketch for Bette Davis'
All About Eve dress on the right.
- Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark. This eye-catching red sequin and mink number is the highlight of Head's work in this Technicolor musical based on a Broadway show. Head worked on this movie's costumes with art director Raoul Pene du Bois and ballet designer Barbara Karinska, as well as director Mitchell Leisen. There's a back and forth between the real world Rogers' character inhabits and her dream world, which explains the over-the-top context. Leisen claimed credit for designing this particular dress, but Rogers insisted it was Head. Regardless, Paramount's publicity campaign relied heavily on the dresses, especially this one.

- Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Wardrobe was also a key factor in Audrey's Oscar-winning breakthrough role, both as a princess and as a regular woman. Here's Head on the TV show You Asked For It talking about her experience with Hepburn on that movie:

- Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. And speaking of princesses... There's no shortage of fabulous outfits that Kelly wore in this one, but I've chosen to highlight the blue gown she wears when she meets Cary Grant for the first time. (Grant chose his own outfits.) I like the way that sheer sash-type thing covers one side of her upper body. 

The movie was released in 1955, but it's set less than a decade earlier, and Kelly's blue dress was inspired by Christian Dior, whose post-war "New Look" was a game-changer in women's fashions. Head enjoyed her time with Kelly to the point where she called Kelly her favorite actress to work with. Head worked with director Alfred Hitchcock on a number of other films, including Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo.

- Wayne & Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Head was no stranger to Westerns (Shane, Hatari! and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among many others), and in this one, while fashion isn't necessarily a highlight, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart both come across looking quite well. Duke's cowboy gear is pretty spiffy, what with this bib shirt and neckerchief, and he gets to dress up formally too. Jimbo, meanwhile, gets attired in some crisp and natty suits that are appropriate for his long, tall frame.

- Redford & Newman in The Sting. This film, on the other hand, was all about style, and the outfits for Robert Redford and Paul Newman were the jewel in the crown. Head worked with Peter Saldutti, Andrea Weaver and Vincent Dee, though Head's role was more of a supervisory one. While there's no truth to the story that Redford & Newman both wanted to wear blue shirts to match their eyes, what they do wear - fedoras, pinstripes, suspenders, berets, etc. - help evoke the atmosphere of Depression-era Chicago, and they wear it all very well, during a period in time when they were both immensely popular. Head's Oscar win here was her eighth. She neglected to thank her co-designers, though, and she took out an ad in the Costume Designers Guild newsletter later to rectify that.

As more information is unearthed about the Golden Age of Hollywood, what is fact and what is fiction is becoming better known, and even if the legend of Edith Head may not have been entirely earned, hers is the name people remember.

Next: Joel McCrea

Films credited to Edith Head:
Remember the Night
The Lady Eve
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Sullivan's Travels
Double Indemnity
Sorry Wrong Number
The Heiress
Sunset Boulevard
A Place in the Sun
Road to Bali

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters
William Powell
Tod Browning

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalag 17

The Billy Wilder Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Stalag 17
YouTube viewing

According to the book Hogan's Heroes: Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13, in 1967, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the playwrights of the original play Stalag 17 (and both former World War 2 prisoners-of-war themselves), filed a lawsuit against Bing Crosby Productions and CBS, claiming that the long-running sitcom was the plagiarized result of the playwrights' pitch for a series of their own, based on their play. While the jury ruled in the playwrights' favor, the judge overruled the decision.

I've always loved Stalag 17 and its sharp mix of both humor and pathos, but I've never seen Hogan's Heroes. I had heard of the show, of course, though a sitcom based inside a WW2 POW camp always struck me as a dubious premise. After re-watching Stalag 17 again earlier this month and doing a little reading about the movie, though, I wondered: was there any merit to Bevan and Trzcinski's case?

I watched a few episodes of Hogan from the first season. The pilot, like Stalag 17, involves flushing out a German double agent from within the barracks, though his identity is no mystery. It's a mildly amusing comic variation on the movie. The approach Colonel Hogan and his unit takes to deal with the spy is completely different, and naturally, being a comedy, it stands in tonal contrast to the film's take on the similar premise. Also, the prisoner characters are nothing like the ones in the film. There's no character similar to William Holden's - the black sheep of the group who's the prime suspect.

It's tempting to chalk it up to coincidence, except the Stalag 17 playwrights did come to CBS with the idea first. Would CBS have come up with the idea on their own? We'll never know for sure. Still, I don't want to turn this into a comparison between Hogan and Stalag 17. While the former isn't as bad as I thought it might be, I'd much rather talk about the latter. 

Holden won the Oscar for his work here, and you all know how great an actor he was, but can I also get some love for Robert Strauss, who was also Oscar-nominated? I didn't know this until I saw the IMDB page for the movie. He played Animal, the lovable goofball slob with the Betty Grable fetish. He was certainly memorable and funny, but he was also paired with Harvey Lembeck, who played Shapiro, the whole time. To me, it seems wrong to favor one over the other because they played off of each other the whole movie, and Lembeck was, in my mind at least, every bit as good as Strauss. (For what it's worth, they were both in the original play.) It's always nice to see a comedic role get recognized by the Academy, but I would've voted for Sig Ruman as Schultz. Great comedic actor; always stood out in a cast.

Director/co-writer Billy Wilder made Stalag 17 after the failure of Ace in the Hole, a film that would not be fully appreciated for many years. This one, however, was a hit. It was made during the period between Wilder's breakup with his first primary writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, and his union with his second major writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. He adapted this from the play with Edwin Blum, but according to Wilder, Blum brought little to the table, so Wilder never worked with him again. He has said that you can always tell which writers he had the best rapport with, because they were the ones he worked with repeatedly, like Brackett and Diamond. The ones he didn't get along with as well, he never worked with again. Like many of Wilder's films, it's tricky to classify: it's too funny to be a drama and too dramatic to be a comedy... but then, that's part of what made Wilder unique among filmmakers.

Other films by Billy Wilder:
Double Indemnity
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three
Sunset Boulevard

Friday, June 19, 2015

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl
YouTube viewing

How do I talk about D.W. Griffith? How do I talk about the guy whose innovative directorial techniques revolutionized film, yet left an indelible stain on that medium with a movie so toxic in its racism? (I don't need to invoke its name, do I? We know which film I'm talking about.) It so happens that 2015 marks the centennial of That Movie, and Time wrote a piece earlier this year to commemorate the occasion.

I have written here before, when talking about other controversial filmmakers like Woody Allen and Mel Gibson, that the work is all that should matter in the end - and indeed, history shows that Griffith was the one who made motion pictures into more than just filmed plays. That cannot and should not be discounted. Still, it's difficult, to say the very least, to draw that line in the sand when it comes to Griffith. Maybe I should just stick to his other movies.

I'm reading a biography of writer/director Ernst Lubitsch (which I'll talk about soon), who had a blossoming career as an actor turned filmmaker in Europe before he came to America. There's a passage where he cited the Griffith film Broken Blossoms as not only one of his favorites, but the film that encouraged him to come to America to continue his career. A cursory look at some of the articles written about it shows that it has stood the test of time and is considered a major masterpiece of the silent era.

Curious, I decided to give it a look. Chinese pacifist dude immigrates to London and befriends poor local girl, who has been abused by her adoptive racist dad. She comes to our hero for shelter when Dad gets too hard to handle, but when Dad finds out who she's been shacking up with, that's when shit gets real.

Okay, first of all: how old, exactly, is Lillian Gish supposed to be? I was under the impression that her character, Lucy, was a teenager, even though Gish would've been 26 when she made this movie (something about silent film actresses - they were all really short!), but Richard Barthelmess' character, Cheng, sure looked like an adult to me (I've already made my feelings about whites playing non-white characters in old movies known; let's not go into that again). My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable calling this film a romance, not that alleged romance is consummated or anything - they don't even kiss - but it sure comes across as one, cradle-robbing or not.

I know that this movie is a relic from an entirely different time in American history. I know that 1919 audiences saw it completely differently, and that looking at it with 21st-century eyes does it a disservice... but what is the big freakin' deal about this movie? First of all, Griffith making an interracial love story does not let him off the hook for That Movie by any means, especially not when he casts a white guy as an Asian and refers to him in the title cards as "the yellow man." I mean, damn, even Lucy calls him "Chinky" at one point (yes, yes, she's a product of her environment and she can't be expected to change her prejudices overnight and blah blah blah).

Cheng has this weird, languid stare that he makes all throughout the movie that I suppose is meant to make him look like he's deep in thought, but most of the time he just looks like he's stoned - which he actually is in a couple of scenes, after hitting the opium pipe, and I couldn't tell the difference one way or the other! Granted, Lucy is probably the first white woman he's ever seen this close, but does that mean he has to look at her like she just sprouted a second head? It makes the jailbait-y aspect of the story even creepier!

I also understand that Lucy's not gonna have an easy time standing up to her father, a professional boxer, but she is so slight and so passive that having sympathy for her is too easy. She's a Woobie, basically, and from Griffith's point of view, there can't be much of a challenge in writing a story around one.

Give Griffith credit - spoilers for a hundred-year-old movie - for having the guts to actually have Dad kill Lucy and to have Cheng sell out his pacifist principles by killing her dad in revenge (though the irony of that decision isn't dwelt on). But to have Cheng kill himself too? I mean, he doesn't even try to escape from the cops; it's just BAM, my life is no longer worth living without Lucy, goodbye cruel world. He makes such a point in the beginning about wanting to spread his Buddhist teachings to the western world, and yeah, he sees a fair amount of man's inhumanity to man and all that, but Lucy's death doesn't seem like it should be the last straw for him. I would've thought he was stronger than that. 

In the end, what's the point that I'm supposed to be left with? That mean people suck and you can't win against them? I have nothing against downer endings, but I need a little more than this to chew on. And do Griffith's title cards have to tell us everything happening on the screen?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Liebster hat trick

Thank you, Paddy, for this latest incarnation of the beloved and well-traveled Liebster Award (my third), and let me take this moment to say how much you and your blog have meant to me in the almost-five years I've been doing this. I consider you an inspiration as well as a friend, and I'm deeply grateful for all you do, so thanks for just being around.

Okay, enough of that sappy stuff! Let's answer Paddy's questions...

1.  What is your favourite book? I can't pick one. But if I had to pick one, today I'll go with Ball Four by Jim Bouton.

2.  Who is your desert island director? Why? That's easy.

3.  If you had a choice, would you live in the past or the future? Definitely the future, so I can live on the moon and have all the cheese I want.

4.  Who is your favourite performer to lip-sync to? Whichever one whose songs I know all the lyrics to.

5.  Cats, dogs or lizards?

 Does he count as a lizard?

6.  Where do you get the majority of your news? Print? Television? Online? Definitely online.

7.  Which juror are you in 12 Angry Men? Probably the guy who was eager to make it to the ballgame.

8.  Your favourite holiday? Why? New Year's Eve, I guess, because it's an excuse to stay out late and party.

9.  Do you play a musical instrument? Sing? As a matter of fact, I played keyboard in high school. Fancied myself the next Billy Joel, but I only wrote a couple of forgettable songs and did a lot of covers. I leave the singing to my sister.

10. What are the first three films you would induct into your personal Film Registry? You mean my Blue Ribbon films, perhaps? I dunno. Pick three from there.

11.  Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi?

"We come to him for help, and he tries to shake us down. Besides, he said I looked like Boris Karloff!"

I did this last time, so I'm gonna try it again: here are eleven statements about me. Only three of them are true. Guess all three and win a cookie!

- Back in college, I once dyed my hair blonde after losing a bet. No, you may not see the pictures.
- I jog for about a couple of hours on the weekends. That's about the most I can manage!
- I saw someone get shot in my neighborhood last year.
- I played a chess grandmaster once and almost beat him!
- I can't snap, no matter how hard I try.
- I met Susan Sarandon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- I "owned" a car for about two weeks and drove it deep into Nassau County once, even though I don't have a driver's license!
- I've recently started eating french fries with mayo. Better than I thought!
- While living in Columbus, I lectured to a high school art class.
- I recently joined a second writing group, one devoted to genre material.
- My sister is going on an audition for The Voice next month.

Any takers? No one solved the previous one, either...