Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Books: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

The 2013 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.

I recently shared a link to an article written by former child star Mara Wilson, from the films Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, among others, in which she talks about the hazards of achieving fame at such a young age. Celebrity can be a daunting enough prospect to face even as an adult. As a child, one can only imagine how much greater the weight of expectations and responsibilities can be. We naturally tend to think, however, that, as with many things, the modern-day version of fame is more complex than it was in the old days. In the case of Hollywood, however, that may not be completely true.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car) is a memoir by Dick Moore, who, under the name Dickie Moore, had a prolific film career during the 30s and early 40s as a child, appearing in such films as Oliver Twist, Blonde Venus, So Big, The Life of Emile Zola, Sergeant YorkHeaven Can Wait and Out of the Past. He also appeared in films and TV shows as an adult. In addition, he's notable for giving Shirley Temple her first on-screen kiss, in the film Miss Annie Rooney. In this book, Moore not only explores the realities of life as a child star in Golden Age Hollywood, he also interviews a number of his peers from the same era and gets them to share their experiences as well.

Dick(ie) Moore
The differences between being a film child star then and now are profound, and reflect the changes in American society. The 1930s, of course, was the time of the Depression, and many of these child actors were making more than enough money to support their parents. Films with juvenile movie stars were a major trend, and they were cranked out at a rapid clip. They were looked upon as a panacea for a moviegoing audience that needed to feel good in the worst way, and as a result these kiddie thespians were almost as revered as their adult counterparts.

With that success, though, came more than its fair share of drawbacks. Often, the kids were isolated from not only their peers, but from the rest of society at large. Their natural psychological development was impaired because the studios made every effort to preserve their juvenile image for as long as it was profitable, often with the endorsement and encouragement of their parents. And once they finally did grow up, many found it difficult to not only sustain their careers, but to successfully integrate into real life.

Moore recounts his experiences with great candor, as do his fellow child stars, which include Shirley Temple, Jackie Coogan, Natalie Wood, Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney, Margaret O'Brien, and many more. There are the usual saucy and surprising behind-the-scenes stories, but there's also a lot of self-reflection as to what this kind of life was like, and what it did to them. Some of the tales are quite tragic, but there's plenty of humor and fondness as well.

I bought Twinkle used, at the Strand in Manhattan. I would've passed on it except I distinctly remember reading about this book on another blog, and for the life of me, I can't remember which one. It may not have even been a classic film blog; I'm not sure, but I remember reading about it and finding it interesting, and that's what made me get it.

This particular edition came with a surprise. Apparently this copy was the property of the late film critic Judith Crist. Her name is written on the endpage. She died almost a year ago, so I can easily imagine her family going through her things and selling off her books, including this one. I have an extremely vague recollection of seeing her name around as a kid, on movie posters and perhaps in print, but I don't recall ever being familiar with her writing.

"Dear Judy & Bill - This is for the folks who have
nearly everything - Love - Dot & Mur 7/84"
But check this out - between the pages of Twinkle were all these promotional press releases and photos for the book, which came out in 1984. There's an interview with Moore; it's just the usual promo stuff, nothing particularly noteworthy. The pics are of Moore then and now. In addition, there's some personal stuff: an anniversary card addressed to Crist and her husband Bill from two someones named Dot and Mur. Couldn't begin to imagine who they are. There's also a program book from a dedication ceremony for a school in Canada. I can't tell what Crist's connection to this was, if anything. Obviously this is one of those chance occasions that makes used book stores so special.

Anyway, Twinkle is an excellent book, and you should definitely check it out, even if the version you get has no memorabilia of any kind inside it.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Monday, July 29, 2013

William Castle and his gimmicks

The William Castle Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of horror film director William Castle, hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl's Dungeon. For a complete list of participating bloggers, click on the links to either website.

I had probably heard of director William Castle somewhere within the past three years of doing this blog, though I doubt I could've told you much about him aside from "He was the horror director with the funny gimmicks." Last Halloween, I had the great privilege of seeing one of his films, Homicidal, at a theater, the fabulous Loews Jersey City, that recreated the gimmicks used upon the film's original release. As a result, it greatly increased both my awareness of and appreciation for the man. Besides, he comes across as such a kindly, lovable (if slightly unhinged) old coot, in an Addams Family kind of way, doesn't he?

As I alluded to in my post on the movie, Castle's huckster promotions may seem corny now (and they probably seemed corny then), but give the guy credit for understanding that movies are entertainment and don't need to be taken quite so seriously all the time. That's something I fear gets forgotten quite often these days within not only horror movies, but genre movies in general. Many of them strive for what they consider a greater sense of "realness" that they forget the reasons the audience pays their money: they want a good time. The best genre movies, I believe, find the right balance between legitimate thrills and playfulness.

Castle's Wikipedia page lists eleven different gags that he used over the course of his career. Here are five examples of his most memorable ones. Granted, these probably should be experienced within the context of the movies instead of separately, but how often do Castle's movies get shown at all, much less with the accompanying gags?

- Mr. Sardonicus. Punishment or mercy for the title character? The audience decides thanks to a bunch of glow-in-the-dark cards that they hold up, and presumably, the projectionist would run the ending they choose. Of course, it doesn't help that Castle himself tended to encourage punishment when he appears on screen to explain this poll. Supposedly there was a "mercy" alternate ending, but historians are unsure.

Test screenings, of course, are common in the industry and have been for a long time, and they can lead to changes in the movie itself. When I went to a private screening of the Steve Martin comedy The Big Year, they gave us cards to fill out afterward, asking us what we liked, what we didn't like, what we'd change if we could. I didn't care for the movie much, and my comments reflected that (though I tried to be kind), but I suspect the filmmakers tinkered with the film for a long time, because it was almost an entire year before it was released.

Castle's gimmick isn't quite along the same lines; it's got more of an instant-gratification vibe to it, which perhaps suits this modern generation better. Who knows - if the talk of a possible "Choose Your Own Adventure" movie is true, maybe this kind of gimmick is poised for a comeback.

Castle's "punishment or mercy" poll

Homicidal. The "Coward's Corner" is something I could easily see being abused even back then, but again, it's about entertainment. If I had been around for this on its initial release, I would see the movie once, then see it again with friends just so we could make asses of ourselves and run out of the theater and get our Coward's Certificates. In fact, this was likely the sort of thing me and my high school friends might've engaged in if we knew about this movie and were in on the gag.

When I saw this at the Loews, there was an obvious plant in the audience who ran screaming out of the theater just so someone could do it. It got a lot of laughs; everybody realized it was all in good fun. Unfortunately, the tenor of many horror movies these days seems completely at odds with such a gag. The metaphysical, self-aware nature of the Scream films come close to capturing that spirit. Maybe there are other recent horror films that do the same. Not being a big horror fan, I wouldn't know.

The Homicidal "fright-break"

Macabre. The first of Castle's movie gimmicks, he claimed to offer attendees a certificate for a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case the film made them die of fright. There were also "nurses" in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theaters. This sounds pretty cool. If it were done today, though, they'd have to be sexy nurses, of course - I'm sure lots of guys would fake a heart attack just so they could get some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, if you know what I mean...

In our litigious society, however, I wonder what would happen if someone really did get a heart attack? Sure, this can easily be made to come across as being tongue-in-cheek (especially with sexy nurses), but all it would take is one person with no sense of humor to sue the studio and there goes the gag. Studios are risk-averse enough as it is these days.

Director John Waters talks about Macabre

- House on Haunted Hill. Inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton? Excellent! If the remake used this, it would've made way more money. I could easily imagine this scaring the pants off of me in 1959... if I could imagine living in 1959. It's not much of a scare today, especially after seeing it in action in this video, but it's still a great idea, especially for a midnight screening. (Come to think of it, most of these films would make for excellent midnight screenings!) Bonus points for the name "Emergo" and of course, for Vincent Price. Apparently the Loews did this gag too, a couple of years ago. I wish I had been there for it! 

I realize there are only so many ways to make a skeleton scary-looking, but I keep thinking there should be more to this gimmick somehow. If it were a surprise, that'd work, but thanks to the internet, it's next to impossible to keep anything a secret for long. Still, I like the idea of it. I just wish it could be jazzed up somehow for maximum scare potential, in a way that didn't involve modern 3D!

Emergo in action

The Tingler. Oh my god, are you kidding me? Vibrating motors hidden under the seats that go off during the scary moments? This kinda reminds me of how they recently tried to install some kind of seats in select theaters that moved around and did crazy stuff to simulate the action scenes in movies. It didn't catch on, obviously, and if it did, they'd probably charge extra for it like they do now for 3D movies. But if I had been there for this back then, I'd have been screaming my head off like a lunatic. Once again, cool name ("Percepto") plus Vincent Price equals WIN.

This seems like the best of the gags to me. There's an element of surprise (will the Tingler be under your seat?), a physical reaction that one can't prepare for, and a full level of audience involvement. But I can also see the drawbacks: people figuring out where the Tingler seats are and bogarting them, or worse yet, posting the locations online; fights over Tingler seats, which could lead to them getting damaged. In the end, it might be more trouble than it's worth.

Castle's introduction for The Tingler

It's kind of sad that there's no interest in this kind of filmmaking and promotion in modern film, don't you think? By the same token, though, because modern audiences have become savvier and more aware of what goes on behind the camera, it's harder to lose oneself to the gags and the innocence of the spirit in which Castle made these gags. 

If Castle were around today, he'd likely be embraced by the Ain't-It-Cool and Comic-Con and SXSW type fanbase, but he'd have to work a hell of a lot harder to maintain their interest. The marketing of a film like The Blair Witch Project was a huge part of its success, but gimmicks like that are difficult to maintain over a career, which is why one only sees something like that once in a blue moon, if even that. Castle was fortunate to have made his movies when he did, I think.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
seen @ UA Midway Stadium 9, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

I had very few action figures as a kid. The type of toys I tended to favor were building toys: Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, domino obstacle courses, stuff like that. I definitely don't remember clamoring my parents for action figures, which is odd, since I'd see them in the Sears fall catalog every year, which I always closely scrutinized. In a way, I kinda regret that. I feel a little bit like I missed out.

Watching Pacific Rim, one gets the impression that director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro probably had action figures as a kid... and he probably liked pitting his Gundams against a Mothra or a King Kong or what have you. I read a recent interview with him in which he said how some people think he makes two kinds of movies; one kind for the studios (Hellboy, Blade 2) and one for himself (Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos), when in fact, he says, they're all the kinds of films he wants to make.

He couldn't be making them at a better time. Geek movies, and geek moviemakers, rule Hollywood right now, but Del Toro is unique in that the majority of the films he has written are based on original properties, as opposed to those based on comics or novels or video games. 

As a result, a film like Pacific Rim, one without stars and that doesn't come with a pre-established audience, lives or dies primarily on the strength of Del Toro and his reputation. And while it's doing okay at the domestic box office so far (internationally, it's another story), it hasn't been as big a breakout movie as comparable films like Iron Man 3 or Star Trek Into Darkness, films with well-established audiences.

It's unfortunate that original properties are harder sells in Hollywood than adaptations - not just for genre films, but all sorts of films. Every franchise, after all, began with somebody taking a chance on someone else's original idea, no matter where that idea originated. Original ideas, though, are considered risky in today's Hollywood, and that bodes ill for its future. But that's another post.

Pacific Rim, derivative and cliche as it was in places, was still fun to watch. We get to see not only the robot-monster fights, but the way the world has changed as a result of their presence, which I liked seeing. Also, it was a refreshing change to see an action movie this summer that didn't take collateral damage for granted. For instance, did you notice the moment where one of the giant robots actually bothers to step over what looked like a pedestrian walkway while searching for the giant monsters? 

Del Toro also said in another interview that he felt it was important to make an action movie that wasn't America-centric, one which was more multi-national, and that's certainly a worthy idea - not only because Hollywood is catering more to international audiences these days, but because it simply makes sense. The Kaiju monsters, after all, don't recognize borders, and besides, it gives us an opportunity to see different kinds of actors. 

For instance, I had never seen Rinko Kikuchi before (she was Oscar-nominated for her role in Babel) and I liked her. Well, I thought she was really cute, mostly, but I would welcome seeing her again in the right movie. Plus, this was the first time I got to see Idris Elba with his British accent, even if he did ham it up a lot. In a summer of action movie disappointments, Pacific Rim... met expectations, if not exceeded them.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Big Words

Big Words
seen @ AMC Empire 25, New York, NY

On the night of November 4, 2008, I was in Columbus, Ohio, watching the presidential election on my roommate Max's laptop computer. I had cast my vote weeks in advance. It was Max's idea and I thought it was a pretty good one. I was still relatively new to the city and I guess I believed it would be better than voting on Election Day itself, especially since I was living in a so-called "swing state" and every ballot would really count, more so than in a traditionally pro-Democrat state like New York.

I had the privilege of seeing Barack Obama speak in public. I think I may have talked about that here before, but basically, it helped solidify my vote, which was leaning toward Obama anyway. Max was always for Obama, whereas until that point, I only knew I didn't want John McCain. I felt fairly confident that Obama would win, but come Election Day, I was still nervous. Max, by contrast, never had a doubt. Max worked nights (probably still does), so we only watched a little bit of the CNN coverage before he had to leave, which was a little disappointing. If indeed history was going to be made, I didn't want to experience it alone.

I did, however, and considering how emotional I got once the results were made official, maybe it was better that I was alone! I don't remember how much celebrating there was in the streets outside our apartment, though I'm sure there was some. It did feel odd, experiencing such a major turning point in American history in a strange city, a place that wasn't quite home yet. Living in New York, it becomes so easy to think of it as the place where everything happens, the place everyone pays attention to...

...but if my time in Columbus taught me anything, it's that New York is not the be-all and end-all to American life. While in Ohio, I got a taste of Midwest politics. I met and spoke to quite a few conservatives - Max's parents, for starters. I saw how the media there differs from that of NYC, and through my involvement in livable streets activism in general and bicycling in particular, I saw what Midwesterners value. It was a valuable education, one I wouldn't trade for anything, and one I definitely wouldn't have gotten had I stayed in New York.

Big Words is a film set in Brooklyn on the eve of Obama's election to the presidency. I didn't think much about my memories of that night while watching it, mostly because outside of the event itself, it wasn't that memorable for me. The story centers around three friends who once formed a rap group before breaking up, and how time and tide has changed them in the intervening years. I had expected more of a balance between the micro story, the three friends, and the macro story, the election - perhaps how one reflects on the other, or something like that - but as it turned out, the "micro" story was the "macro" one all along. I found that a little bit disappointing, but not much.

I've written before about growing up with hip hop music. The era Big Words references is the early 90s, and by that time I had already grown apart from the music. Hip hop had already grown into something I didn't recognize and didn't enjoy as much, so I didn't feel any sense of nostalgia while watching the film.

I liked Big Words well enough, but it didn't strike me as being as great as other AFFRM-distributed films such as Restless City and Kinyarwanda. There's a fair amount of cynicism expressed about the music business (and rightly so, perhaps). Two of the main characters are gay, so that alone adds an extra layer of dimension to a film like this. The film rambles a bit before it gets to its big confrontation at the end. 

If this doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, well, maybe it's not, but only because the AFFRM films have set the bar for black films so high. Big Words is better and smarter than most black films put out by Hollywood - hell, most Hollywood films, period - and I'd recommend it for that alone, but in a year which includes the incomparable Mother of George, plus Fruitvale Station, which is touted as a major Oscar contender, this one can't help but pale in comparison a bit.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What was responsible for the geek renaissance?

...It’s obvious that we live amidst a “Geeks Rule the World” vibe these days, right? For a lot of us over a certain age, it’s incredible that Star Trek fans and every other nerd nirvanist of all ages are allowed—nay, encouraged—to wear their con badge of honor openly, their heart on their sleeve, as it were…in full uncloseted view of everyone! The “geek girl” explosion, the cool-kids cosplay club… football Trekkies... the designers of cell phones, iPads, even a Vulcan-loving President —yep, it’s an amazing time, when you think about it. What lit the fuse on such an explosion? Well, network TV can play a big role in changing the culture, reaching millions easily and putting new memes and ideas into play almost overnight —and there’s the clue.
This is the week of Comic-Con International in San Diego. There are plenty of similar conventions around the world, but this one, more than the others, has become the geek equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. I went there in 2007, and it is everything you imagine it is and much, much more. Anyone who has any interest in geek culture should make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It wasn't always this way, however. Over the past twenty years or so, CCI evolved from a simple, provincial comic book convention into an epic event that embraces not just comics, but film, television, video games and more, and its growth reflected the gradual mainstreaming of geek culture.

How did we get here, though? The preceding quote is from an article that argues in favor of the rise of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, and specifically, the season-ending cliffhanger of the seminal two-part episode "The Best of Both Worlds," in which Captain Picard is captured by the soulless, voracious Borg and turned into one of them. The article writer, Trek historian Larry Nemecek, pinpoints this as the moment when geek culture began to go mainstream.

It certainly had a tremendous impact. At the time, there were rumors that star Patrick Stewart was leaving the show and that this was meant to write him out (not true). TNG still struggled with being in the shadow of its predecessor, the original and greatly beloved Star Trek, though by this time the show had begun to find its own identity. And by ending the third season on such a dramatic cliffhanger, it fueled much fan speculation throughout the summer and into the conclusion, which began the fourth season. So there was already a great interest in this show and its future from the audience's perspective.

Still, I suspect there was something else that had an even greater and more immediate aspect: the remastered re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, and I believe the reason why is simple: loathe as I am to admit it, SW has always been cooler than ST. The re-releases were preceded by a tsunami of hype that bordered on the reverent, especially when it was understood that George Lucas was planning to return to the SW universe with new films. Even though ST came first, Episodes 4-6, the original SW trilogy, have been treated as holy scripture by its fans over the years, and this reverence has showed absolutely no signs of abating, particularly not now, when the promise of new SW stories is in the air again.

ST, by contrast, has often been looked down upon by certain segments of fandom. For a long time it was considered nerdy, and not in a cool way, while SW was more heavily embraced. Think of all the movies you've seen about kids, especially in the 80s, in which you saw a bedroom containing SW action figures, or a replica Millennium Falcon, or even a SW bedsheet or something like that. SW, for many of my generation, represents a crucial link to childhood that for whatever reason, isn't associated with nerdhood - the way "nerd" used to be defined.

ST's true legacy, I believe, is in the realm of television. TNG, and its successor, Deep Space Nine - a show which employed serialized storytelling long before any of the current hits - raised the bar not just for genre TV shows like Babylon 5, Xena, The X-Files, and so forth, but television in general, from Law and Order and CSI (shows that spawned franchises), to Lost and Alias (stronger genre shows with an ongoing mythology) to Mad Men and Breakiing Bad (serialization as the accepted norm). And while I don't deny that TNG's success played a crucial, even critical role in the geek renaissance, I think that even now, ST has been and perhaps always will be second to SW in overall popularity and influence. But a very... very... CLOSE... second.

Then again, that catalyst could've been something else entirely. Here are a few other possibilities:

- Maus winning the Pulitzer Prize. Comic books play a central role in geek culture, but ever since the 50s they had a stigma attached to them as being juvenile and worthless - until Art Spiegelman's graphic novel was feted with the Pulitzer in 1992. Suddenly comics were no longer just for kids.

- Batman '89. The younger generation who have grown up with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight may never truly appreciate how huge Tim Burton's interpretation of the superhero was when it first came out, especially in terms of merchandise.

- The "death" of Superman. It was what got me back into comics after a brief hiatus, and even though I eventually gravitated towards more sophisticated comics in other genres, this was the first time DC and Marvel realized that events like this within the funnybooks themselves could attract mainstream media attention.

- The rise of the internet. In particular, the Usenet groups, in which like-minded fans could talk to each other directly and with greater immediacy.

It could have been any one of these, or it could have been any combination, or it could have been something completely different.

I'd be very interested in hearing your opinions on this.

Five times Trek and Wars have crossed paths
Confessions of a cynical and crotchety fanboy
Is pop culture reaching a critical mass?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stanwyck on TV: Dynasty/The Colbys

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon is an event dedicated to ... let's be honest... my favorite actress of all time and I'm kinda jealous that I didn't think of doing this myself first, but what the heck, as long as someone's doing it. It is hosted by The Girl With the White Parasol. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the website.

Don't ask me why I watched all those prime-time soaps from the late 70s-early 80s. I don't know! I was a kid; I couldn't have possibly understood half of what was going on - and it's not like I preferred the likes of Dallas and Falcon Crest over The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I guess the simplest explanation might be that I was a child of TV and I'd watch whatever crap was on. My parents must have thought I'd be okay with watching all these trashy, libidinous tales of adultery and jealousy and revenge. I don't remember them ever telling me no, you can't watch this stuff, even though they came on at 9 or 10 PM, sometimes on school nights. Sometimes I'd watch them with my older sister. Maybe she was meant to be a moderating influence?

They were certainly reflective of the era: the "Me Decade" of the 70s giving way to the Republican 80s. Grab what you can while you can and protect it. Make your way to the top no matter who you have to screw over. That spirit definitely infused those shows. Maybe that's what made them so appealing? Dunno. It's hard to look back at them with a critical eye because I was so young and remember so little about them outside of the "Who shot J.R.?" storyline in Dallas.

I remember Dynasty, of course. Cool theme song (though Dallas' was way better). I remember the clothes, the hair. It was probably the first time I had ever heard the word "bitch" used by adults in reference to a woman. This alone gave the show a forbidden appeal. I never got so caught up in the show that I found myself actually hating Alexis, though. It was more of a curiosity than anything else: what was it about her that made her so hated? If nothing else, it was a glimpse into the adult world, not that I could ever imagine myself being part of it.

Which brings us to Barbara Stanwyck. Some people remember her more as a TV actress than a film legend. In fact, she was a three-time Emmy winner, once for her self-titled TV series from the early 60s, once for her subsequent Western show The Big Valley, and once for her role in the epic 80s mini-series The Thorn Birds. (None of it, though, can compare to her thrilling guest appearance on Charlie's Angels, natch!) 

How big was Dynasty? Well, it never won any Emmys (though it did get several Golden Globes), but at its peak it was a top ten show for four straight seasons ('82-'83 through '85-'86) and inspired a line of women's wear. Its impact can still be felt today. Here's an article from earlier this spring that cites Dynasty as a direct influence on modern prime time soap operas.

Stanwyck made three guest appearances on Dynasty in 1985, a show which attracted its fair share of big-name movie stars: Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Ali MacGraw, Billy Dee Williams, Katharine Ross and Ricardo Montalban were among the show's guest stars over its nine seasons. Stanwyck's Big Valley co-star, Linda Evans, was already one of the show's main attractions. Stanwyck played Connie Colby Patterson of the Colby family, in-laws and rivals of the Carringtons through the marriage of Fallon Carrington to Jeff Colby. At one point Fallon gets in a plane crash and is presumed dead...

... but turns up alive in the Dynasty spin-off series, The Colbys. Stanwyck revives her role as the action shifts from Denver to LA. Heston played Connie's brother Jason, the CEO of Colby Enterprises. This show only lasted two seasons as a result of mediocre reviews and poor ratings. Stanwyck left after the first season because she absolutely hated the show, allegedly calling it "the biggest pile of garbage I ever did."

As you can see in this scene from Dynasty between Stanwyck and Heston, traces of the old Stany were still there - the feistiness, along with the sensitivity. This could be a scene from one of her 50s melodramas. This scene from The Colbys has much of that spirit as well. It's a shame that show wasn't better.

Stanwyck died in 1990, but not before the American Film Institute feted her with a Life Achievement Award in 1987. Among those who came out to honor her was Evans. Hers is as touching a tribute as you'll ever find.

All my Stany posts (so far!)
Baby Face
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy
Sorry, Wrong Number
The Big Valley
Stella Dallas
The Lady Eve/Forty Guns
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (book review)
Banjo on My Knee/Remember the Night
Double Indemnity

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
seen @ Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, Bryant Park, New York NY

I don't go see movies at Bryant Park as much as I used to. That's likely because things have changed. For one thing, entrance to the lawn area is more regimented; park security checks all bags before you go in. The bigger reason, I think, though, is the general unpleasantness of people. In general, the smaller an outdoor movie crowd in New York is, the easier it is to tolerate, and the Bryant Park crowd is huge.

I remember going there a year or two ago with Reid to see High Sierra, a movie I had never seen and was looking forward to, but it was spoiled by assholes around us (I forget exactly how). We ended up leaving early. This year, there are two films that I had my eye on, and last night's film, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the first. I figured it was worth giving Bryant Park a try again.

As it turned out, the worst part about last night was the weather. It was hot like you wouldn't believe! I got to the park sometime between seven and seven-thirty. I was walking east from Eighth Avenue, just a few blocks, but by the time I got to the park, I was sweaty and tired and uncomfortable in my clothes. Free ice cream bars were being given away at the south entrance, so I happily grabbed one, and that helped for a little while. I sat down in a lounge area just outside the east end of the lawn, with chairs and tables with beach umbrellas, so I was in the shade, but the shade didn't help. It was sweltering hot, and it stayed that way all night. 

The heat made me sleepy and unwilling to move, and it didn't help that I was losing interest in the movie. The sound system was plenty loud, even way in the back where I was, but bits of dialogue still sounded slightly muffled, so while I was just barely able to follow the story, it didn't strike me as anything more than three old harpies - Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland and Agnes Moorehead - shrieking at each other in Southern accents. In fact, I was prepared to leave at one point. But then bodies started dropping. And Bette has a weird dream sequence... and Olivia started slapping Bette around... and that flower pot...

Still, there were other problems. Early in the film, a bunch of Eurotrash teens gathered at the ramp underneath my position and chattered for awhile, not loudly, but loud enough to be a distraction... and some of them were smoking. So I had to chase them off. They looked at me like I was the crazy one. Maybe it was the language barrier.

The ubiquitous glow of cellphones lit up across the lawn here and there, and some people stood on the ramp taking pictures of the screen with their cells. They didn't block my view, but they were an irritating distraction. Last week when I saw Dracula in Prospect Park, I saw people taking pictures, but they were mostly interested in shots of Philip Glass and his orchestra performing alongside the film, and I was willing to cut them some slack for that. Hell, I was tempted to take a few quick shots myself. Here, it was different. It felt more like a tourist-y thing.

There was one old-timer near me who was eagerly talking old movies with his friend, but beyond that, I didn't feel like I was watching this with a crowd that appreciates movies in general, much less old movies. True, the crowd did applaud when Bette does something important in the climax, but it was an almost perfunctory bit of applause and not a HELL YEAH kind, which is what it should have been. Maybe I imagined all of this though. I dunno. Perhaps I'll be able to tell the next time I come to Bryant Park.

As for the movie itself, well, I'd probably need to see it again to get a better feel of it, but for all the horror movie-style imagery and campy diva duels, there's something to this. It's well shot, for one thing - not just Bette's dream sequence, but the long prologue in the beginning where we see young Charlotte at the party, deep in shadow, dominated by the large figure of her father.  Plus, the language pushes the barriers, for 1964, anyway: it's a bit of a shock to see Bette Davis use the word bitch. Grade this one incomplete for now, I guess.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

I imagine the first time I heard the music of Philip Glass was probably in a movie, definitely during my video store years. It may have been Candyman; it may have even been The Truman Show, but I'll bet it was probably Koyaanisqatsi. If you've never seen it, I recommend it; it's an experimental art film featuring images of the natural and the man-made world, set to Glass' music. I would say that there's nothing quite like it, except it was so popular they made a sequel.

When Ruth recently did a post about Glass, I had commented that Glass' music is the kind that's so mesmerizing that it'll make you forget where you are. (I had recently heard his music in a bookstore and it took me awhile to reconnect to the world after I left.) I wouldn't call myself a fan of Glass' work, but I certainly appreciate it. It's atmospheric, ethereal; not the kind of music that grabs you by the collar but entices you to come to it instead.

In 1999, Glass composed a score to accompany the classic horror film Dracula that was part of a remastered edition of the film. The score was performed by the Kronos Quartet. The original film has next to nothing in the way of a score, so adding music to it is a welcome addition. Last Saturday, as part of Brooklyn's annual summer performing arts festival Celebrate Brooklyn, Glass, along with his Philip Glass Ensemble, performed their score live in accompaniment to the film itself. 

It was the first time I had seen a "talkie" with a live score. On occasions where I'd seen silent films with live scores, the music was a very powerful, very dominant presence. In these cases, the music informed the visuals and provided a context for what was going on, whether it was a single organ or a small orchestra. Here, the music didn't have to do as much of the heavy lifting, so to speak, because there was dialogue, but because the music was live, it had more substance, more immediacy, than if it were part of the film's audio track.

The Ensemble consisted of Glass on piano, plus horns, woodwinds and what must have been a keyboard (he was on the far end of the stage so I didn't see it), plus a conductor. I was sitting in the front and to the right, about eight or nine rows back, so I had a great view of Glass himself. I liked the fact that the score allowed for pauses. There were brief moments where a certain musical passage would end and you'd hear the dialogue for a little bit, and then a new passage would begin. Plus they allowed for music within the film itself, as well as important sound effects.

That said, while the music was beautiful, it didn't make the movie any scarier. That may simply be an inherent element of the film itself, made in 1931 and viewed by a 2013 audience - you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone truly scared by Dracula today - but it did make me aware of something else about Glass' music: it rarely makes you feel any deep emotion. Its beauty is a rather chilly one, an austere one, and while it's possible for one to be moved by a certain passage, its inherently repetitive nature doesn't really reach your soul the way composers like Beethoven or Mozart do. 

Glass' score didn't bore me; on the contrary, it made me appreciate Dracula more - but it didn't thrill me either. Part of me thinks it may be because he was working with a "talkie" film and his music couldn't overpower the dialogue, but even if it were a silent film, I doubt it'd be much different. I mentioned Koyaanisqatsi earlier; that's a film without a narrative or dialogue, so it's easier to project whatever emotions or thoughts one wants onto the combination of images and music. Still, like I said, I did enjoy seeing Glass perform live, in a venue like this.

As for the film itself, once again I was amazed at the difference seeing it on a big screen makes. Drac's castle loomed much bigger than in my memory of seeing it on TV, Renfield was creepier, Mina more beautiful and good ol' Bela Lugosi was a much more commanding presence. It's easy to forget sometimes how influential this film has become, how iconic the image of Lugosi as Dracula is and how every vampire movie that followed owes a debt to it. Seeing it on a big screen is a reminder of what this movie has meant to cinema history.

It had rained on and off all afternoon. I remember standing in line outside the Celebrate Brooklyn front gate in Prospect Park holding my umbrella as it drizzled for awhile, but it stopped well before the gates opened. I had gotten there fairly early, so I got a great seat, though as I entered I noticed that there were people who chose to camp out on the grassy area behind the seats. This kinda surprised me. I remember sitting in that area when I saw The Swell Season perform here a couple of years ago and I hated sitting there - and that area fills up pretty quickly once the regular seats are taken.

There was an opening musical act - that's one of the many great things about CB; you get more than your money's worth every time - a violinist named Kishi Bashi. I'm still not sure how to describe his music. He and his band would play a riff and it would go on a repeating loop and then he'd layer it with other riffs and adjust them as the songs went on. His vocals were high and wailing. He had one guy who played what looked like an electric banjo, but sometimes he'd bang on it like a drum. My description can't do it justice, but it wasn't bad. Way different from anything you'd hear anyplace else.

Horror of Dracula

Saturday, July 13, 2013

When Tom & Jerry were movie stars

The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon is an event in which the theme involves any notable cinematic pairing of movie stars, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Everybody remembers Tom & Jerry from Saturday morning (or sometimes weekday afternoon) cartoons, right? All they ever really did was chase and beat the crap out of each other, but they still had distinctive personalities that occasionally extended beyond their basic roles. And of course, their relationship inspired many others in the animation canon, from Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd to the Road Runner & Wile. E Coyote to Itchy & Scratchy. The chase is the simplest of comedy tropes, and for animated characters, these two perfected it.

Tom & Jerry during the H-B years
Generations may have grown up seeing Tom & Jerry on the small screen, but the truth is that they were made for the big screen, back in the days when your movie ticket came with extras like a newsreel, a sing-along, and of course, a cartoon. These days, of course, the only time you see a cartoon in front of a movie is if it's before an animated feature, which is unfortunate, but what can you do?

I liked T&J, though I had no great affinity for them; they were one more in a vast stream of animated childhood entertainment. I never understood, though, the rules for when T&J could speak: sometimes they spoke, but most of the time, they didn't - but other characters could. It never seemed consistent, and I never understood that, though it didn't bother me that much.

Favorite moments would include the one where Tom sings "Is you is or is you ain't my baby" to that girl cat (not sure if that's the actual title); the one where Jerry tries to convince a duckling that he's not as ugly as he thinks he is (the poor duckling keeps trying to kill himself!); and the Three Musketeers-type setting with Jerry's little friend Nibbles ("Touche, pussycat!").

Tom & Jerry under Gene Deitch
There was one where Tom dreams that he's died and he has to get into heaven by getting Jerry to forgive him in writing. That one was kinda disturbing. Tom's under a deadline and the closer it gets the more frantic and desperate he becomes, and all the while Jerry suspects the whole thing is bullshit anyway. And the Devil, of course, is that recurring bulldog character, laughing his ass off the whole time.

T&J cartoons have been made by several different studios over the years, but they were created by another dynamic duo, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at MGM. The two were thrown together in 1939 to revive a flagging cartoon division at MGM. Their initial cat-and-mouse duo was named Jasper and Jinx, who appeared in a 1940 short called "Puss Gets the Boot." (The name Jinx isn't mentioned, but history records that as the mouse's name.) 

After a slow start, it caught on with theater owners, and eventually it received an Oscar nomination in the Best Short Subject: Cartoons category. A series featuring the cat and mouse was commissioned by MGM animation studio head Fred Quimby, and it was fellow MGM animator John Carr who re-named them Tom and Jerry. (Fun fact: "tom and jerry" is British slang for rambunctious kids' behavior.) T&J would go on to achieve twelve more Oscar nominations under MGM, winning seven times, still a record for character-based theatrical animated series. Hanna-Barbera made 114 T&J shorts in all.

Tom and Jerry, the Chuck Jones version
With the advent of television in the 50s, movie revenues went down, and as a result, the MGM animation studio shut down in 1957 after attempts to retool T&J failed. Hanna-Barbera moved to TV, where they achieved great success with shows like The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. Meanwhile, MGM revived T&J in 1960 with thirteen new shorts, directed by Gene Deitch and produced by Rembrandt Films' William Snyder. (Deitch, ironically, was not a fan of T&J and their non-stop violence.) They worked on a smaller budget, and as a result their shorts were considered not as good as the H-B material. Still, they made money, and by 1961, T&J overtook Looney Tunes to become the highest grossing film series of all time.

In 1963 Chuck Jones, with his Sib Tower 12 Productions studio, took over T&J with his partner Les Goldman, and they made 34 more shorts until 1967, when MGM ended production. Among the voice actors used during this run included the legendary Mel Blanc and June Foray. In 1965, the H-B shorts began making their way onto television... but that's another story.

Of course, no discussion of T&J in the movies is complete without a mention of their appearances in live-action MGM musicals. In the 1945 film Anchors Aweigh, T&J appear in a dream sequence and Jerry gets to dance with Gene Kelly. The synchronization of Kelly's moves with Jerry's is seamless and looks completely natural. Also, in 1953, T&J appear in Dangerous When Wet, featuring the late Esther Williams, in another dream sequence. They get to swim with her underwater. (They were supposed to be in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but Steven Spielberg couldn't get the rights.)

So now they wanna revive T&J again. I imagine it'll probably be hard to make them seem fresh since, like I said at the top, they inspired so many other similar cartoons, but who knows? Maybe they can catch lightning in a bottle again. Still, it's a bit disappointing that this revival will be for TV and not for the movies. Imagine how cool it would be to see a T&J short in front of, say, Man of Steel or Pacific Rim or the next Hobbit movie (Warner Brothers is producing these new T&J shorts) on through the rest of the year and then releasing them on Blu-Ray in time for Christmas. That's what I would've done, anyway.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold Diggers of 1933
seen @ "Summer On the Hudson Movies Under the Stars," Pier 1, Riverside Park, New York, NY

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the Great Depression wasn't a lot of fun to live through. We've all seen pictures, read stories, about American life in the 1930s; how the federal government, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, went to extraordinary lengths to revive the nation's economy after the stock market crash of 1929. It doesn't look all that appealing. Small wonder, then, that Hollywood sought to lift people's spirits through movies, especially now that they had sound to go with images.

Spectacle - whether it's glitzy, glamorous musicals then or computer-generated action flicks today - has always been a strong palliative in Hollywood movies to get us through hard times. For example, I've written before about how I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back the first weekend after 9/11 and how good it felt to laugh again.

On the other hand, I lived in Columbus, Ohio in 2008 when the recession settled in, and while I felt its effects, it didn't necessarily change my choices in entertainment much. I remember seeing films like Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, but I also saw much more serious fare like Frozen River and Milk because I knew they were exceptionally good movies. Spectacle didn't really play a factor in those cases. I wasn't looking for a escape from reality so much as I was looking for... if I had to give a name to it... a way to make sense of reality. To better understand why the world was in the shape it was, although this isn't something I would've been able to articulate at the time, I don't think.

Also, things didn't seem quite so hopeless for me in 2008. Barack Obama's presidential campaign was all about restoring hope to the American people, and it's what led to his euphoric victory after eight dreary and devastating years under George W. Bush. I had a skill, my cartooning, which led to a regular gig, and even if it was a poorly-paid one, it kept my spirits up. And I had good friends to lean on, beginning with my roommate. Therefore, I never felt the need to lose myself in the spectacle that the movies provided. Maybe I would've felt differently about them if I had lived through the 1930s, which, after all, was a more extreme state of affairs.

Owhay anymay imestay idday Ingergay Odgersray ehearseray isthay ongsay?

Which brings us to Gold Diggers of 1933. (They couldn't have just called this "Gold Diggers"? The 1933 part makes me think this was part of a franchise.) What must it have been like to see a movie this gaudy, this lavish, this off-the-wall silly in 1933, especially sitting within an old-school movie palace on a 50-foot screen? Given the times, how spellbinding was it to see beautiful women scantily dressed in outfits made to resemble coins singing a song called "We're In the Money"? What did they make of future superstar Ginger Rogers singing a few verses in friggin' Pig Latin? (I wish I hadn't been spoiled by that scene. Months ago, someone - maybe on the TCM Message Boards, I don't recall - posted a YouTube link to that clip and I watched it, jaw plummeted due south.) Did they notice that those Busby Berkeley-choreographed numbers could never possibly be recreated on any stage, even though it's supposed to be part of a Broadway show within the film's context?

I mean, this is spectacle taken to ludicrous lengths, even by today's standards. One has to admire the audacity that drove director Mervyn LeRoy and choreographer Berkeley to just plain not give a damn and create visuals like these, but I suspect it was the Depression that must have spurred them to be this over-the-top - and yet the movie doesn't completely ignore reality; the final number, a song called "My Forgotten Man," is clearly an acknowledgment of all the forgotten men in society who were victims of the times, yet even this is presented on as grand a scale as the other numbers.

I'm not sure whether Gold Diggers was meant to be hopeful or simple escapist entertainment. I guess it comes across as a little bit of both. I mean, I doubt that I would've walked away from this in 1933 thinking, "Oh boy! If I can trick a rich woman into a loving marriage, all my problems will be solved!" but I definitely would've felt better about life for a little while. Seeing it in 2013, I liked it a lot, as a relic from a long-ago era in American history. I just wish I could better put myself in the mindframe of a 1933 moviegoer. I think it would better help me understand what forces went into making a film like this, which is so distinctive, so unusual, and so very unlike anything made today.

It felt so good seeing this at Riverside Park. When it hasn't been raining (I had been rained out of two other outdoor movies prior to this), it's been sweltering hot here in the big city, and those Hudson River breezes were a welcome relief. It was so breezy, in fact, that the movie organizers had a hard time keeping the inflatable screen up at first. Throughout the film, the wind rippled over the screen, and as a result, it gave the image an almost dream-like quality. You know how sometimes, in old movies, whenever they go into a flashback or a dream, there'll be this effect where the image ripples and shimmers? Watching the film last night was reminiscent of that - and given the subject matter, it wasn't exactly inappropriate.

The film was almost ruined for me by a chattering older couple behind me. They seemed excited to see Gold Diggers, to their credit, and during the opening credits they merrily oohed and aahed at the names of the stars, but once the film began in earnest, I had to ask them to keep it down, and they did. However, towards the end, the woman got on her cell phone to call someone, and she was no longer making an effort to be quiet. The dude next to me shushed them once, and just as I was about to do the same, the two of them got up and left. For all their excitement about seeing the movie, they still ended up leaving early. Still, in all fairness, Riverside Park is far removed from the street, never mind the nearest subway station, and it was getting late.

By contrast, there was an old woman directly behind me who was much nicer. She was clearly dispirited when I returned to my seat as the hostess began to introduce the film, me being so much taller, so I asked her if she could see. She said she could, it was no big deal, but as it turned out, I could barely see from behind the dude in front of me, so I moved to the left into the aisle a little bit. This pleased the old woman behind me, and she thanked me, even though technically I did it more for myself. Afterwards, she thanked me again. Nice way to end the night.

Look for pictures of Riverside Park to go up on my WSW Facebook page.