Thursday, July 30, 2015

New release roundup for July '15


Mr. Holmes. I've never been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, but how can one resist seeing Ian McKellen in the part, especially as a much-older version of the character? It's 1947, and the 93-year old former detective has retired to the country. He's kinda irritated that the stories Dr. Watson wrote about him are exaggerated, and he wants to set the record straight about at least one case - his last - before he dies, but his memory is failing him. McKellen reunites with his Gods and Monsters director, Bill Condon, on this one, and if you liked that, chances are you'll like this too. Laura Linney plays his housekeeper. Her British accent is slight; I almost didn't notice it at first, but it's there. She gets some great moments, too, as you would expect. Holmes fans will dig this one for sure.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thelma Ritter

Oh, boy, how I've been looking forward to writing about Thelma Ritter! You know how there's always that one actor you see over and over again in movies and/or TV that you like, but can never remember their name? This was more of a thing in the pre-Internet days, when information about a given movie or star was not always at one's fingertips. Anyway, Thelma was the embodiment of this trope for me back in my video store days. I'd see her in something - always as a supporting character, never as a lead - and I'd always like her, but I could never remember who she was. 

But the important thing is that I did like her - and so did the Academy. Some would consider being Oscar nominated six times without a win a failure, but in recent years, I've had reason to believe that winning an Oscar is not all it's cracked up to be. We talk about it, we fuss over it, we make a big deal when our favorite actors or directors win them - I've done it before, and I'll do it again - but you know, it's all just a game. It's a popularity contest, actually, and if thespians like Ritter - and for that matter, Deborah Kerr, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Annette Bening and Glenn Close - never grabbed that little gold man despite being nominated multiple times, how can that be seen as a negative? After all, they must've been doing something right if they kept getting nominated, no?

So. All About Eve. Birdie is basically Margo's sidekick and comedy relief, true, but she's also there to keep Margo honest, because she knows where Margo's been. Their relationship works both ways, though: she's not anywhere near as cultured as Margo, and Margo lets her know whenever she puts her foot in her mouth. And she has a life separate from Margo, or at least she did. Birdie may not be essential to the story, but she deepens it, and Thelma made the most of the role.


But Thelma was just as skilled in drama as with comedy. Just look at Pickup on South Street, probably her best role. (Unfortunately, it came during the year of From Here to Eternity, which dominated the Oscars.) Thelma co-hosted the Oscars the year she was nominated for Pickup. She wasn't exactly Billy Crystal, but she was there on stage, in a live feed from New York, talking to Bob Hope in LA. You can see it on YouTube here, beginning at about 3:36.


Did you know Thelma won a Tony? New Girl in Town debuted on Broadway in 1957, and Thelma starred in it with Gwen Verdon, who was just coming off of Damn Yankees. Verdon played a hooker who comes back home to live with her father, trying to escape her sordid past. Thelma played Verdon's stepmom, and the two of them split the Best Actress in a Musical award. Yes, Thelma sings, and while she was no Ethel Merman, she wasn't bad.

In these days of instant stardom, coming quicker and for younger people, you rarely see an actor achieving success later in life. Thelma was 45 when she first appeared on screen, after a career in theater and radio, in an uncredited bit part in the original Miracle on 34th Street, but she was good enough in that bit part to get noticed, and the rest is history. You gotta admire that. Thelma may not have been a leading lady, but in the hearts of movie fans, she was and remains an A-lister for sure.

Next: Douglas Fairbanks

------------------------------
Films with Thelma Ritter:
Miracle on 34th Street
Pickup on South Street

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Joel McCrea

For a long time, I underestimated Joel McCrea. I never disliked him, but I never saw him as anyone particularly special, at least not compared to more dynamic actors like Jack Lemmon or William Holden or Burt Lancaster. McCrea always struck me as kinda vanilla by comparison.

At first, there were his films with writer-director Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story. At the time I watched them, I remember knowing more about Sturges than McCrea, so it's possible that I was more caught up with the dialogue than with the actors in those movies. 

This would've been during my early video store days, when I was still learning about major directors and actors. Someone like McCrea would've gone under my radar, except I distinctly remember one day when Bill, my manager, put on These Three. McCrea's name is under the title, after the names of the stars Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, and when I saw that, I thought perhaps his name was pronounced mac-CREE, so that it would rhyme with "three." 

When I started film blogging, I'd see other bloggers write about him in more appreciative tones. but while I saw some more of his movies, I never went out of my way to pay attention to him. To me, he remained an actor who was good, serviceable, sturdy, but not someone I could get excited about.

I wouldn't call Ride the High Country an epiphany of any kind, but that was a movie where McCrea surpassed being merely "good" for me. As an older man, especially in a Western setting that was a little bit edgier than earlier Old Hollywood westerns, he had a more authoritative, distinguished air that suited him well, I think. Of course, by the time I saw that, my tastes had evolved to where I could appreciate different kinds of actors. 

Would I put McCrea in my all-time top ten for leading men? No - so why am I writing about him? Because I realize now that he is better than I used to give him credit for. Also, I'm just enough interested in him to want to know a little more about him - and what I've learned is quite interesting indeed.

For instance, did you know McCrea owned a ranch? He wasn't just a movie cowboy, he was one in real life, too! It was built on what eventually became 3000 acres of land in Santa Rosa Valley, California, back in the 30s at the suggestion of none other than Will Rogers, whom McCrea befriended early in his career, as a fallback in case Hollywood didn't work out. He lived there with his longtime wife (57 years!) Frances Dee, and raised their children there. From the photos, it looks beautiful, like something out of one of his many westerns.


McCrea had a TV show - a Western, natch, called Wichita Town (not to be confused with a movie he made called Wichita), which he starred in with his real life son Jody. It was a post-Civil War series about a US Marshall in a growing town. It only lasted one season on NBC. Jody alternated much more between film and television. Perhaps you saw him in such films as Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and The Glory Stompers?

So I think what we've learned here is that sometimes - not always, but sometimes -there's more to an actor than meets the eye.

Next: Thelma Ritter

-----------------------
Films with Joel McCrea:
Banjo On My Knee
Sullivan's Travels
Ride the High Country

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Sheik/The Son of the Sheik

The Sheik
YouTube viewing

The Son of the Sheik
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn NY

So what was the big deal about Rudolph Valentino? It's hard to imagine how big he was during his brief life as a silent film star, because apparently he was HUGE - like Brad Pitt in his prime, Justin Bieber, Beatles-in-'64 huge. And it's not even like he was that great an actor. Acting was kinda beside the point for someone like him.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger attempts to justify the Valentino madness that seized movie audiences in the 20s:
...Valentino was an ordinary Italian boy from an ordinary background, but when he came to Hollywood and stepped in front of the camera, he took on an air of mystery that fascinated everyone, even those who despised him. Valentino's mysterious quality hinted at several different things; throughout his career, people speculated on whether he was superficial or deep, kind or cruel, stupid or smart, male or female. He might be anything, anything at all. That was his gift and what made him a star.
He goes through most of The Sheik looking like this.
First of all, The Sheik is a lousy damn movie, but not necessarily because of Valentino. Agnes Ayres' character brings everything that happens down on her own head because she is the epitome of privilege. She insults Valentino's Sheik and his entire culture (calling them "savages"), she sneaks into a private gathering of the Sheik and his pals simply because she's insulted that she can't attend, and to top it off, she pulls a gun on the Sheik when she's found out, which in the real world would be cause for an international incident - and all because of her superior, xenophobic attitude. 

But that's not the worst part. Later, after the Sheik has kidnapped her and taken her to his desert hideaway, Stockholm Syndrome sets in and we're meant to feel sorry for her because Sheiky won't admit his love for her. I just found her absolutely repulsive. Oh, and I just LOVE the part near the very end when we discover that Sheiky's not really Arabic after all - he's a Brit who was raised Arabic! Miscegenation is averted! Hooray! Valentino was kinda funny, in an unintentional, campy way, of course - Basinger notes that had he lived to the sound era, he might have found a second life doing comedy.



But let's get back to Ayres' character, Diana. People forget that The Sheik was based on a novel written by a woman, and thus, the Sheik was originally created from a female perspective. Basinger points out that Valentino represented some kind of female fantasy of the time period:
...When Valentino's image is analyzed today, he is usually described as androgynous. However, he is not like a Marlene Dietrich, who clearly understood the term and definitely played with sexuality for a dual appeal. Valentino is from a less knowing, more innocent decade, and his films forthrightly present him as a Latin Lover for women... who wanted to escape the bounds of a constricting society that gave only men sexual freedom. He is not a hip, cutting-edge, bisexual figure but a creature out of a romance novel. He is there to rip bodices.
On the surface, I can buy that, I guess, but Diana doesn't come across as repressed. Early on, she turns down a marriage proposal because she calls marriage "the end of independence," and Eurocentric imperialist attitude aside, she's no Victorian prude; she defies her brother's wishes by making an expedition into the desert with only a local to guide her and has no fear of what may happen to her. The way the Sheik is presented, it's as if he's there to teach her a lesson, to restrain her in some manner, which would seem to be at odds with the purposes of the Diana character. At least, that's how I saw it.



The Son of the Sheik was similar, yet it was pretty different as well. For one thing, Vilma Banky was sexier. For another, it's more of an action film than the first Sheik - there are way more fight scenes. I knew Valentino played both Sheik and Sheik Junior, but I didn't realize until I saw it how big a role the former would be. I suppose Original Sheik kinda seems like the same character, though without having seen him through the passage of time, it's hard to tell - even with the brief flashback to the first movie. And the special effect of seeing Valentino, as Sheiky, put his arm around himself, as Junior, was pulled off well.

Junior falls for Banky's character, but he's led to believe that she deceived him in order for him to be captured by the bad guys, but when he demands the truth from her, threatening her life, we can't tell whether she's begging for mercy or insisting that it's a lie and that she always loved him. She's not given a title card to indicate exactly what she's saying, and it looks like she could be going either way. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but somehow I doubt it. A movie like this isn't exactly known for its subtle plot turns.



At least I had the music of the Alloy Orchestra to go with Sheik 2. Once again, Celebrate Brooklyn brought their favorite band back to Prospect Park to provide the music for another silent film, and once again, they were marvelous. I sat next to this older couple who were seeing the band for the first time, though they had seen the movie before. They were big film fans. In fact, they run a website where they sell Art Deco paraphernalia, and among their product includes some classic film related material. They gave me a catalog.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Books: Five Came Back

The 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

As much as World War 2 continues to be discussed and studied and analyzed today, it's hard for modern generations who never lived through it to fully understand the everyday reality of it, whether as a civilian or a serviceman, which is a big reason why we have it recorded on film. Life as a filmmaker during the war is not something that's commonly talked about. We don't realize that all those images of fighter planes and marching soldiers and ships at sea came at great risk. While much of it is newsreel footage, made by filmmakers trained in the field for years, Hollywood also contributed in bringing those images to worldwide audiences.


Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris spotlights five prominent directors who gave up prestigious positions within the industry to serve their country in the war: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. By interweaving their individual stories within each other, Harris creates a narrative that begins just before Pearl Harbor, follows the five men around the world as they brought their cameras into the heart of battle, on land, sea and air, and ends with the end of the war, and a little bit beyond.

One thing that stood out for me within this book is seeing the mentality that drove these men into battle. For various reasons, they saw it as their duty to lend a hand to the war effort by providing footage of battle, and that's understandable, but some of them also seemed to get a visceral kick out of participating, as if they saw it as an opportunity to test their manhood. In this modern time, where the reasons for going off to war are often far less clear-cut, this can be a difficult attitude to understand. It's less a part of the cultural zeitgeist, thanks to changing times and greater knowledge of American foreign policy, but during the era of the "greatest generation," it was more of a thing, and we see it played out throughout the narrative.

Another element that resonated for me was how the filmmakers saw their time in the service as a way towards a greater sense of artistic freedom. Under the studio system, filmmakers were subject to the demands of the studio heads, but during the war, they answered to Washington, and while they had to often butt heads with their superiors there, for the most part they were able to tell the stories they wanted. Five goes into the feelings of liberation this engendered, and how it shaped the directors' post-war plans.


Mark Harris
The directors weren't always able to capture scenes of battle, and thus there were occasions when they had to recreate battle scenes after they happened. Five addresses the debate over this at the time. American movie audiences had a real hunger for up-to-date war footage, especially during the early years after Pearl Harbor; it was part of the reason they went to the movies during the war years (televisions weren't commonplace yet). Personally, I think re-enactments should've been labeled as such, but apparently that wasn't always the case.

The five directors were very different men. Wyler, a European Jew, was deeply concerned about the fate of his hometown. Of all the five, he perhaps paid the greatest cost physically. Stevens was a family man who was not only part of the D-Day invasion, but the liberation of the camps at Dachau as well. He paid the biggest cost mentally. Capra was based in Washington. He was on top of the film world when he signed up, and he believed he could stay that way after the war's end. I was most interested in their stories. Huston was a ladies man carrying on affairs behind his wife's back. It was harder to "root" for him, but his contributions were no less than the others.

And then there was John Ford. One of the medium's most gifted and most feted directors, Five shows how much of a difficult human being he was, too. He was obsessed with naval culture and wanted so badly to be recognized as someone who made a difference to the war. He was also an alcoholic and could be a bully on the set, especially to his biggest star, John Wayne. And yet how can you knock someone who not only risked his life to make a short film like The Battle of Midway, but changed the way war films were made in the process?

Five is a testament to the evolution of film. Scrutinized and viewed with suspicion before the war, it emerged as a powerful communication medium that influenced millions of lives worldwide - and still does.

----------------------
Previously:
Scandalous
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Given Word

The Given Word (O Pagador de Promessas)
YouTube viewing

Last month I wrote about the movie Black Orpheus, a popular and beloved movie known around the world. I think it's terrific. It's superbly filmed, with a fine cast featuring people of color in a remarkable reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth that showcases the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, and I would happily recommend it to anyone. But it never occurred to me how actual Brazilians regard it.

You've seen me write about Le for quite awhile; for one so young, she is incredibly knowledgeable about film. The impression I got when she commented on my post is that the film has become a kind of shorthand for Brazil in general and Carnaval in particular, and not necessarily in a good way:
...As for Black Orpheus, it passes the image all foreigners have of Brazil: a land where there is no sin during Carnaval, and relationships mean nothing during the party. But it's interesting!
Granted, she's just one person, but I'm inclined to give her words some weight, given how much she knows about movies, and that she is an actual Brazilian. When I asked her about other Brazilian movies, she recommended this one: The Given Word, a former Palme D'Or winner at Cannes released only a few years after Orpheus that may not be as glamorous, but is every bit as compelling.



It's Dogma meets Ace in the Hole: to save the life of his dying pet donkey, a Catholic man promises St. Barbara to carry a cross to a church dedicated to her, far from his home, during a festival in her honor. He and his wife make the long pilgrimage, but the priest refuses to let him enter the church with the cross because the man, in his desperation, invoked a different incarnation of St. Barbara, one apparently rooted in witchcraft. The local media picks up the story, and the man quickly becomes a lightning rod for all sorts of opportunists within the community.

I've said it here before, but I believe there's a profound difference between faith and religion. Religion is what happens when faith is codified and given rules and traditions by those whose only purpose is to establish and maintain a hierarchy, one that gives them power over others. Theoretically, it should bring people together, but often times it encourages separation and otherness.



Witchcraft gets a bad rep from Christianity (even though many of its sacred holidays are ripoffs of pagan rituals), but I have known a few people who identify as Wiccans, and they have no interest in turning you into frogs or anything like that. In the film, the word they use is candomble, which is a religion native to Brazil, originally brought over by enslaved Africans. Interestingly, its practitioners used Catholic saints to hide their own deities, which would explain how St. Barbara could have an analogue in candomble traditions. Ze, the main character, says to the priest that he doesn't see any distinction between St. Barbara as she's worshiped in candomble or in Catholicism, though he also insists that he himself is Catholic.

Ze does come across as naive at times. Rosa, his wife, is not exactly thrilled at being part of this journey, and as a result, she does something that she later regrets. Ze should pick up on this, but he doesn't. His single-minded nature makes him look like a kind of holy fool, an innocent Don Quixote-like crusader for a lost cause, but he comes across much better in comparison to everyone else around him.


I couldn't help but be reminded of Andi and her similar pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain four years ago. She didn't have to carry a cross, but I imagine the backpack she hefted along the way must have felt almost as heavy. Like Ze, she's not tied down to a single faith, though where Ze turned to candomble because he didn't have a choice, Andi chooses to "double dip," as she puts it - and she's happy this way. Ze, however, is tormented, because despite what he did, he still wants to be a good Catholic and honor St. Barbara. He doesn't see what he did as "cheating" or being unfaithful, but there's no room for such shades of gray within the hierarchy.

Word is a very thought-provoking movie, one that should make religious people reexamine their own beliefs and ask themselves whether they are, in fact, served by them or not. I told you Le knows her stuff!

Monday, July 13, 2015

T-Men

The 1947 Blogathon is exactly what it says on the tin, hosted by Speakeasy and Shadows & Satin. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at S&S.

T-Men
YouTube viewing

T-Men continues my foray into the film career of director Anthony Mann. You may remember my post earlier this year on Raw Deal and, much earlier, Bend of the River. I think what I like about Mann's movies is the direct approach he took with his stories. He didn't fool around with too much in the way of subplots or characterization, but that may have been a by-product of the genres he worked in - crime and westerns.

This one's a "true crime" story about undercover treasury agents busting up a counterfeiting ring. Watching this, I was reminded a little bit of the old crime comics from the same period of time, such as Crime Does Not Pay and the EC Comics such as Crime SuspenStories and Crime Patrol. These and other genre titles were the medium's equivalent of pre-code films; they were known for pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in comics before the moral watchdogs of society stepped in and forced the industry to adopt their own version of the Hays Code. 



T-Men, like many of those true crime comics, particularly Crime Does Not Pay, takes an authoritative approach to its story. It begins with an introduction by an actual former Treasury Department bigwig who explains the real life case this film is based on, drawing comparisons to the Al Capone case, and then a Naked City-type narrator takes over for the rest of the film. Dennis O'Keefe, who was the bad guy in Raw Deal, is the good guy here. His tough guy persona kinda reminds me a bit of Sterling Hayden or even William Holden - a very no-nonsense type who never descends into camp.



T-Men is quite dark visually. Even the interiors in places like hotel rooms and fancy apartments are shrouded in menacing shadow at times. The cinematographer was named John Alton, who worked with Mann on Raw Deal (I noted some of the clever compositions in that film) and other movies of his, and would go on to share an Oscar win for his work on An American in Paris. He also worked on Father of the Bride, The Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry and The Birdman of Alcatraz, among many others.



I don't know how big a problem counterfeiting is today, but I remember it was something I was taught to be cognizant of, at the least, when I worked in retail. We'd have one of those special pens that you had to use to mark the big bills to test the paper, and we'd have to hold the big bills up to the light to look for a certain strip woven into the paper, things like that. And of course, there'd always be one dumbass customer who'd say "Oh, yeah, it's real, I made it myself!" or something like that.

Anyway, this is another cool movie from Anthony Mann. Now I gotta get back into his westerns...

-----------------
Other films from 1947:
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Miracle on 34th Street
Lady in the Lake
Dark Passage
Nightmare Alley