Saturday, August 8, 2020

Television: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon is an event dedicated to the life and career of the legendary filmmaker, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Good evening.

Perhaps more than any other director of the Golden Age, Alfred Hitchcock was a personality, someone known by movie audiences as well as any movie star, and never was that more apparent than when he made the leap to television in 1955 with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, AKA The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

A weekly anthology of suspense and horror stories, it’s notable not just for the quality of the stories but for how it shaped the Hitchcock persona. His droll sense of deadpan humor was often on display in his movies, sometimes as part of the cameo appearances he’d make in them. For TV, it was like he became an eccentric uncle with whom you were never sure if he was pulling your leg or not.

His introductions to each episode painted him as macabre yet self-depreciating, with a dry wit and a strong sense of the absurd, much like The Addams Family years later. The creepy theme song and the stylized cartoon silhouette of him also helped sell him as an iconic persona that one looked forward to seeing as much as the stories themselves. Here’s a collection of some of his more memorable intros and outros and here are some fun facts about the show.

So nothing fancy here; just my take on a few episodes picked at random. I didn’t realize when I began planning for this post AHP (a half hour) was a little different from AHH (an hour), though it’s all basically the same show.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Thursday’s Game

Thursday’s Game (AKA The Berk)
YouTube viewing

With 21 Emmys and three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, James L. Brooks is an undisputed legend of the big and small screens. Let’s count the hits he was involved in creating, shall we: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rhoda. Lou Grant. The Tracey Ullmann Show. And of course, The Simpsons—and that’s just TV.

Switch to the movies and you can add Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, all Best Picture nominees he directed and wrote. As a producer, you can even add Jerry Maguire, Say Anything and Big.

Before all of that, though, he was just a TV writer from Brooklyn working his way through the 60s. He had been a copywriter for CBS News, writing for broadcasts and documentaries as well as some work as an associate producer before switching to sitcoms, like That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons. He created the show Room 222, the second one with a black lead character.

In 1970, he and Allan Burns created MTM. 29 Primetime Emmys later, it made him a major player in television. Here’s a nice appreciation of the show from TV Guide in the context of the pandemic.


In 1971, Brooks tried his luck with a feature film. Thursday’s Game was an ABC movie that didn’t air until April 1974. Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart are two guys who enjoy a poker game with friends every Thursday night. When the game breaks up because of a fight and they need something new to do, Wilder and Newhart are forced to confront their inadequacies in life, especially when Wilder loses his job producing a crappy game show.

This all-star cast looks like a powerhouse now, but in 1971 many of them were not yet household names: Ellen Burstyn (two years before The Exorcist), MTM cast members Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, Rob Reiner (the same year All in the Family debuted), Norman Fell (five years before Three’s Company) Chris Sarandon (four years before Dog Day Afternoon) and Nancy Walker (same year as McMillan and Wife and three years before Rhoda, not to mention those Bounty commercials). By the time Game aired in 1974, some of these people were better known, including Brooks.

Game feels like the sort of thing the future creator of Terms of Endearment would write. It has its funny moments—Walker plays an unemployment agency counselor, and her scenes with Wilder are cute—mixed with a little drama: Wilder and Burstyn’s marriage is in jeopardy due in large part to his inability to admit he lost his job; he pretends his Thursday night poker game is still going on, but he actually stays out all night with Newhart, which naturally stresses her out. Game is less funny-ha-ha and more funny-ain’t-life-peculiar.


Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog wrote about Game last year. I agree with him in that the poker scene in the beginning was a highlight and that nothing afterwards is quite as funny as that. The manic explosions Wilder was so great at are reined in and I admit, I kinda longed for more of them, but this isn’t that kind of movie. Indeed, at times Wilder looked like he was exploring his sexy side(?): he has a couple of shirtless scenes with Burstyn and Harper tries to seduce him in another scene. Young Frankenstein this is not.

I’d say Game is worth checking out overall, especially if you’re nostalgic for 70s television.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Trilogy of Terror

Trilogy of Terror
YouTube viewing

When I remember TV movies, I remember the epic mini-series of the 80s. They were trumpeted as a Big Deal in TV Guide and they usually had all-star casts, not that I would’ve heard of most of the names, but the point was they got my attention and I watched them, even if I was too young to completely understand what was going on.

As for the shorter, considerably less-than-epic ones, I think I understood even then that they were inferior to theatrical movies. I definitely remember The Day After and how that film stoked our nuclear apocalypse fears. When the Amy Fisher trial became popular, all three networks made TV movies about her! (I forget which one I watched.)

As kids, we also had the ABC Afterschool Specials: young adult melodramas about the issue of the week, usually starring some popular teen actor from television. Here’s a MeTV top ten list. I don’t remember any of these; I think I only watched them sporadically—why would I, when GI Joe and He-Man were on instead?

TV movies get a bad rep, it’s true, but back in the 70s, they aimed a little higher, had greater aspirations, and were more memorable overall. I’ve already discussed some of them, like The House That Would Not Die with Barbara Stanwyck, and Duel, the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. This month I’m gonna look at some more, and today we’ll begin with one that developed a huge cult following to become a pretty big hit thanks to a certain terrifying-looking doll.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Books: The Dreams and the Dreamers

The 2020 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.

Hollis Alpert founded the National Society of Film Critics in 1966, when he wrote for the Saturday Review. Pauline Kael was a founding member.

Basically, they were a bunch of New York critics who couldn’t get into the more prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, which included major newspaper critics like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. Though they were New York-based, the magazines they wrote for had national circulations, hence their name. Every year they hand out best-of awards and are considered a major stop on the road to the Oscars.

Alpert wrote a number of novels and film-related books, including biographies of Federico Fellini and the Barrymore family. In 1962, he collected a bunch of his Saturday Review columns into a volume: The Dreams and the Dreamers: Adventures of a Professional Movie Goer. This is another book from Bibi’s library’s collection of discarded books that she sent to me.

This book was of interest because of the period it covered: the early 60s, when the Hollywood studios were on the decline. Alpert discusses the rise of foreign filmmakers, the actor-producer in Hollywood, film vs. theater, movie censorship, the pay-per-view TV experiment, and profiles people such as Alfred Hitchcock, producer Ross Hunter, and actress Jean Seberg.

In his introduction, he discusses the evolving perception of film and film criticism, as a result of what was then a new level of discourse: classes on film in universities, art house cinemas springing up in big cities, serious discussion of movies in other countries like France. He concludes this new audience needs a new kind of critic:
...The movie critic can no longer get by with a slapdash attack on one movie, panegyric of enthusiasm for another. More, whether he knows it or not, is demanded of him. He is expected to have some more than cursory acquaintance with the fields of literature, theater, philosophy, science, art, and music—for movies, inevitably, when they are serious, and even when they are not—touch on all these fields. Sad to report, the average movie reviewer, by and large, is simply not up to the movies he writes about. He may feel at home with a film in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day engage in a game of mistaken identities, but some other level of evaluation is required of him when he deals with Antonioni, Resnais, and Bergman (Ingmar, not Ingrid).
Hollis Alpert
I understand that much. Thanks to the Internet, I can sound like a big shot if I want to whenever I write about movies, and I grok the necessity of expanding one’s sphere of knowledge in evaluating a work of art such as film, but as I’ve said many times, I do not consider what I do “film criticism,” even now, ten years later.

I don’t actively search for the Big Meanings in movies or analyze the style of a particular director or actor unless I feel a strong need to, usually as a result of some personal connection I’ve made with a movie, and if I do, I’m as likely to disagree with the prevailing wisdom as anything else, for reasons I may not be able to fully articulate.

I’m just not that good a film writer. Besides, I like to have some fun in writing about movies, and at times that has meant writing in a... non-standard format. Long-time readers will know exactly what I mean.

Alpert’s writing is illuminating in some places, boring in others, yet definitely written from a distinct point of view. Not quite as lively as reading Kael or Roger Ebert, but as a portrait of world cinema in a critical time of transition, it’s not bad.

———————
Previously:
The Real Tinsel

Saturday, August 1, 2020

‘Tenet’ to go int’l before US release: start of a trend?

...Warner Bros. said last week that “Tenet” would not have a traditional global day-and-date release — a surprising (though not unprecedented) break from tradition since North America is the world’s biggest film market and remains pivotal for major movies to turn a profit. But the studio hopes to innovate and recalibrate given the fact that foreign markets are already starting to reopen safely and desperately need new Hollywood movies to entice crowds.
If theaters in other countries are ready to go and we’re not, then they probably should get to see Tenet first. It’s unfortunate that piracy and spoiler-filled online discussions are the price Americans will have to pay until we can see the movie safely, but maybe it’s what we deserve for not wearing masks.

I’m seeing a lot of talk about the possibility of Hollywood productions moving abroad for the short term. That’s a trend that had started before The Virus: James Cameron, for instance, has been making the Avatar sequels in New Zealand, and after a brief shutdown earlier this year, he’s back at it. I could see some studios relocating to someplace like Vancouver if it was a matter of keeping their doors open and getting new product to those international markets. Meanwhile, streaming and VOD options remain a safe and viable option.

Regarding Tenet: I remain uncertain whether or not I’ll go see it, assuming theaters will be open by September (not a sure thing at all). If this had been a normal year, there’s no question I would’ve been there opening weekend, but the incredible amount of buildup around this movie once again has me questioning whether or not any of it is warranted. I’m sure it is and I’m just being contrary.

I’m more concerned about the possibility that I may have to let go of my attachment to the theatrical experience of seeing a movie sooner rather than later—but I’ll talk more about that later this month. One thing’s for sure: movies and TV won’t look the same once this is over. (Speaking of Tenet, did you know star John David Washington used to play in the NFL?)

More to follow.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Nude on the Moon

Nude on the Moon
YouTube viewing

They’re not nude, just topless.

I really feel you should know that before anything else.

Does it matter? Eh, not really. A movie with a title like Nude on the Moon is made for one reason and one reason only—to see lots and lots of hot chicks—and in that sense, this delivers big time. The girls in this movie may not actually be nude, but they are all gorgeous and they’re filmed perfectly, with a steady camera and in plenty of sunlight.

Lots of dudes made nudist camp and “nudie cutie” films back in the late 50s and early 60s, such as Russ Meyer, whom we talked about earlier this month, and while those films served a market Hollywood wouldn’t touch, the vast majority of them faded into obscurity in time. So why has this one not only survived, but is remembered today, if only by a few die-hard cultists?

This one was not made by a dude.

[STILLS FROM THE FILM TO FOLLOW: NSFW!!!]

Monday, July 27, 2020

Olivia


Let the rest of the world remember her for that tawdry Civil War melodrama. As far as I’m concerned, she’ll always be the great actress from The Heiress.

I first saw it in high school; we were studying the novel Washington Square, naturally, and I had no idea who she or anyone else in the picture was, but by the end I was mesmerized. I think it’s significant that I came into the movie with as few preconceptions as possible. I have since developed a bit of a resistance to period costume dramas; I’ve seen quite a few, both classic and contemporary, and some I’ve even liked, but I think it’s possible I’ve compared them to this in my mind and they’ve all fallen short.

Nothing can match the feeling of... awe I felt upon seeing this at a young and impressionable age, having no fixed ideas about period costume dramas or classic movies in general, and seeing this remarkable actress undergo an on-screen transformation from mousy girl to independent woman. And that ending has never left me in all the years since. Never.

I’ve seen her in other stuff since, of course. I’ve learned about her life off-screen, including her rivalry with her sister Joan Fontaine, not to mention the blow she struck for the rights of all Hollywood actors. That one movie, though, defines her to me more than anything else because of where and when I saw it.

The CNN obituary

The short films of Andy Warhol

I’ve tried to understand what the big deal was about Andy Warhol. When I lived in Columbus, I went to a major Warhol exhibit and looked at his silkscreens, sat through a few of his films, read his history, but I can’t say I ever made a personal connection to any of it.

It’s easy to say, “You had to be there,” but in his case, I really feel that’s true. For all of the articles that testify to his importance to art history and pop culture history, I don’t grok any of it, and certainly not his films—I mean, who would want to sit through a static shot of the Empire State Building for eight damn hours? More to the point, who would feel such a film had value?

I get that Warhol was mostly pulling everyone’s collective leg with his work, but audiences of the 60s strike me as willing accomplices to the joke. I dunno. Still, his films have a relevancy because of who he was, if not for their content, so I will examine a few and try to appreciate the importance they may have. No promises.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Mondo Trasho

Mondo Trasho
YouTube viewing

It took fifty years or so, but the world has caught up with John Waters. Just turn on your TV and you’ll realize there can no longer be any doubt. Whether or not that’s a good thing, well, that’s up to you to decide... but I will say this:

As an artist, no matter who you are or where you come from, no matter what your intentions are—whether you wanna provoke or shock with your art or whether you wanna create beauty, however you perceive it, or whether you just wanna make a million dollars and retire to the south of France—you’re never, ever gonna please everybody, and attempting to try is an exercise in futility.

It’s something I wish I could remember more often. I struggle with the conservative mores I was brought up in, and at times I’ve wanted to push my art further, whether it’s my visual art or my writing, as I alluded to recently. To embrace “trash,” to find virtue in modes of expression that run far left of center and to be open about it, takes guts, because even in 2020, there’s gonna be somebody ready to hang you for it.

I suspect Waters realized this a long time ago.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
YouTube viewing

You have to hand it to Russ Meyer. He knew exactly what he wanted to see in his movies, and he got it, time and time again: sexy chicks with big tits—yet his films weren’t pornos, and sometimes, they weren’t even erotic. His women weren’t put on pedestals; they were active and did things; sometimes bad things, true, but they were rarely boring.

As a cartoonist, I’ve drawn sexy girls in the past for my own amusement, and occasionally for publication, sometimes clothed, other times not. I’ve wanted to make an erotic comic book; I even wrote a script for a story about a stripper, but I never had the cojones to actually draw it and publish it.

Putting one’s sexual fantasies on display is not an easy thing, not even these days, where public exhibitionism is more common than ever thanks to the internet. I know the things that turn me on are not as unusual as I once might’ve thought (and none of your beeswax), but in my prose at least, I’ve loosened up somewhat in that category thanks to a writer friend whose stories have lots of steamy sex scenes. She and I have had long conversations on the subject. Still, I’m no E.L. James by any stretch.

Being attracted to sexual imagery and afraid of it at the same time has been the American way for generations, and it’s certainly been a long-running subplot in the history of film. The underground cinema of the 50s and 60s chafed at the restrictions against nudity and depictions of sexuality in general, and Meyer was one of the filmmakers at the vanguard.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Shorts: The underground

I don’t blog about short films very often, outside of what I see at the Queens World Film Festival, anyway. This seems like a good opportunity to change that, especially since so many underground filmmakers are known for their short film material as much as their features.

There are lots of filmmakers I could talk about; for this post I’ve chosen five, all based in America. I may do a post like this again with other underground filmmakers; don’t know, but I’ll try to talk about shorts more often.

Meshes of the Afternoon. This was Vija’s suggestion: Maya Deren was a dancer and all-around creative person in addition to being an experimental filmmaker. In 1943, she and her husband Alexander Hammid got together to make this wordless, dream-like narrative—and it does resemble a narrative more than I had expected; I had thought it would be more impenetrable.

She stars in it, and given her thick, dark hair and the abstract nature of the film, it kinda resembles a Kate Bush video. The cinematography is good, and she and Hammid pull off a few clever camera tricks. For what it is, it’s not bad.

Deren is considered a major figure in the field of experimental film. She’s quoted at length in this piece about her.

Bridges-Go-Round. Shirley Clarke was also a dancer. She studied film at the City College of New York and was down with not only Deren, but other experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas.

1959 was a very good year for her; in addition to her contributions to the Oscar-nominated short Skyscrapers, a collaboration with four other directors, including DA Pennebaker, she made this ode to New York’s bridges. The angles she shoots from, the double exposures, the color filters, make the bridges look like Spirograph designs (I can’t be the only one out there who remembers Spirograph, can I? Can I?). Here’s a more complete profile.

Pull My Daisy. This was Virginia‘a suggestion. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac wrote and narrated this 1959 short directed by Robert Frank & Alfred Leslie, featuring Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of other Beats (I presume) at a small party at some couple’s apartment. The people are definitely talking to each other, but you can’t hear what they say because Kerouac talks in a voice-over the whole time, making up some narrative about their conversation—I think.

I can’t say I’ve ever had much interest in the Beats, so while the contrast of Kerouac’s running commentary and the relatively mundane imagery feels like an overly literary MST3K episode, I zoned out after the first ten minutes once I realized this was going nowhere.

Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans was adapted into a Hollywood movie the next year, with Leslie Caron and George Peppard. Kerouac has been the subject of a number of docs, and movies have been made of On the Road and Big Sur. This Atlantic article wonders why Hollywood can’t make a decent film about the Beats.

Mothlight. Stan Brakhage was known for his abstract short films that really played around with the medium. He was also friends with Mekas and Deren, as well as the composer John Cage. For this 1963 short, he worked without a camera: moth wings, flower petals and blades of grass were pressed between strips of 16mm splicing tape  and the finished product was contact printed. I like the strobe- like effect the film produces; it’s not the kind of effect you could easily reproduce with computers.


Scorpio Rising. Kenneth Anger is one of the first openly gay filmmakers in America; his films came under scrutiny in the past on suspicion of obscenity. You may have heard of the duology of books he wrote, Hollywood Babylon, about scandal within the Golden Age of the film industry. Here’s a piece on him from 2016.

In this short, images of biker gang members preparing to go out for the evening lead to a really wild party and a cross-country motorcycle race, all set to oldies music—though they probably weren’t old in 1964, when this was made.

The homoeroticism in this is evident almost from the beginning, and the party scene brings that subtext to the surface in a big way, but what struck me the most was the editing. He mixes in images of the Brando movie The Wild One with a Christ narrative and Naziism, and the Eisenstein-like cuts are sometimes no more than a split second, other times they’re longer. The effect is exhilarating and more than a little disturbing.

Many of these filmmakers were part of the film distribution collective co-founded by Jonas Mekas called the Film-Makers Cooperative, also known as the New American Cinema Group. Their archive of over 5000 titles are in a variety of formats, from 35mm to video and DVD.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Titanic (1953)

Blogathon. Stany. Pale Writer.

Titanic (1953)
YouTube viewing

Nine decks. 882 feet, nine inches long, 175 feet tall. Maximum speed, 23 knots—equal to 44 kilometers on land. Total passenger capacity, 2453, with luxuries including a seven-foot deep swimming pool, a gym, a library, a squash court, a Turkish bath and an a la carte restaurant.

They didn’t call that ship Titanic for nothing.

Even today, over a century later, the sinking of the massive British passenger liner still makes news. Back in January, an international agreement declared the wreckage would be left undisturbed, but in May, a federal judge gave the okay for a salvage mission to retrieve the ship’s Marconi wireless telegraphThe US is challenging this decision.

There are at least eighteen films about the Titanic in one form or another. You know about James Cameron’s version. You might know about the 1958 British film A Night to Remember. Do you know about Saved From the Titanic, the silent short film made a mere 29 days after the sinking in 1912, starring one of the actual survivors? Or, for that matter, the 1929 silent feature Atlantic, starring a young Madeleine Carroll?

Titanic movies have been around almost as long as the movies themselves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
YouTube viewing

Sure, a movie about a black guy who kills cops and gets away with it looks really good right now... and I can’t help but feel churlish for wanting to criticize a movie like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which even in its day hit like a bolt of lightning and set the stage for the blaxploitation films of the 70s. Still, it’s worth discussing as a film, independent of its wider cultural impact. I’ll do my best.

Chicago native Melvin van Peebles was working as a cable car grip man in San Francisco in the 50s when, in conversation with a passenger, he got the idea to make movies. A few fledgling attempts at some short films led to an unsuccessful attempt at breaking into Hollywood which led to an extended stay in Europe for awhile, meeting avant-garde filmmakers, making some connections, gaining experience.

In 1968 he made his first feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, in English and French, which led to a gig at Columbia Pictures, where he made the comedy Watermelon Man in 1970. MVP, however, craved greater creative control over his work.

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Wild Angels

The Wild Angels
YouTube viewing

Roger Corman is still alive and making movies! This Variety piece from last December discusses his latest projects and how he’s adapted to the technological changes to the industry—and even during the quarantine, he’s encouraged others to keep making movies.

To go into his career as an independent producer-writer-director, including discussing the many film superstars who started out with him when they were nobodies, would take way too long, so let’s focus on one aspect of it: his association with indie production company American International Pictures.

Founded by Samuel Arkoff & James Nicholson in 1954, their mandate was finding low-budget films that could be released as double features for the burgeoning teen market. Their first release was a Corman production, The Fast and the Furious. (Fun fact: Corman licensed that title to Universal in 2001, and when the long-running sports car franchise became a hit, Corman got a tiny piece of the profits.)

Corman had spent the 60s making adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories with Vincent Price and even spent a little time at Columbia Pictures. Then one day he became aware of motorcycles.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Shadows

Shadows
YouTube viewing

“Independent film” has become a loaded phrase these days, and it  may mean one thing to you but something else to me. Is it simply a matter of working outside the Hollywood studio system? Maybe, but then why are so many smaller boutique studios owned by the majors still considered indies? Is it measured in budgets? If so, what’s the upper limit for a budget before a film no longer becomes “independent”? Is it an aesthetic, an attitude, a frame of mind? If so, who determines it? Is it a matter of distribution? Maybe, but these days it’s possible to see an indie at the local multiplex, at least in big cities.

I remember wrestling with similar issues during my years in the comics industry and I never found the answers there. With the movies, it’s probably even more knotty and tangled.

Ultimately, I can’t say I care one way or another beyond a certain point, but I think some filmmakers and some films are and will forever be associated with alternative cinema in America because of either their approach to filmmaking or their themes or their budget or any combination of the three—and it’s these films I’m gonna look at this month and possibly next month too.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m gonna focus on the 50s to the 70s; maybe the 80s if I feel like it. We have to begin somewhere, and for me, if we’re talking independent film, we have to begin with John Cassavetes.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Books: The Real Tinsel

The 2020 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 have my friend Bibi to thank for the books in this year’s blogathon. She works in a library, and over a year ago, she sent me a huge package of film books her library had planned to discard. Some of them pertained to modern cinema but most were about Old Hollywood and were written in the 50s, 60s and 70s...


...such as this first one. The Real Tinsel is an oral history of the early days of Hollywood, with terrific photographs, compiled by Bernard Rosenberg & Harry Silverstein in 1970. Many of the industry types they spoke to dated their film careers back to the 1910s and 20s—so you can imagine how valuable are the stories they tell.

Some interviewees should be recognizable to the average cinephile with a working knowledge of Hollywood history: Adolph Zukor, Dore Schary, Edward Everett Horton, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner. Others are less so, but equally important: producer Walter Wanger, actresses Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet, stuntman Gil Perkins, cameraman Hal Mohr, writer Anita Loos.

They’re all given free reign to discuss not only their careers, but their lives, many of which began in the 19th century. Some common denominators include: working-class jobs in their youth, roots in the theater, wartime reminiscences, witnessing the evolution of the medium and learning how it works, the shift from New York to Hollywood, salaries, labor disputes, the coming of sound to motion pictures, industry anecdotes, etc.


A photo from Tinsel: Mae Marsh
In The Cinderella Man
At the time of publication, some were happily retired; others were still active in the industry. All spoke candidly about their ups and downs in Hollywood at a languid, rambling pace, and because they’re from a time period just barely within living memory even in 2020, their language reflects that. It’s a tad more formal, more erudite, and a far cry from modern diction, influenced by the internet and greater contact with other countries.

That said, I wonder how accessible this book was to the cinephiles of the late 60s/early 70s. Today I can (and often did) go to IMDB and look up completely unfamiliar names like Joe Rock, Dagmar Godowsky, or Billy Bletcher. Rosenberg & Silverstein don’t really provide much in the way of context as to who these people are or the people and places they describe. 


In Tinsel, Rod LaRocque talks
about his marriage to
Vilma Banky.
Tinsel would have benefited greatly with some annotation. The interviewees were in their sixties, seventies and up—way up. Memories were bound to have been faulty in places, not to mention selective. The book comes across as being for the cinephile, the insider who subscribes to THR and Variety, or teaches at film school, but I get the feeling it was meant more for the casual movie fan, and if so, a little help as to who these people were wouldn’t have hurt. It’s not like Crawford and Fonda and Bacall are in this book.

Still, Tinsel is a valuable treasure trove of Hollywood stories in the words of the people who helped build the industry.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The first movies out the theatrical gate: what to expect?

...Exhibitors’ intentions will still need to clear the authorities in key places like New York City, Los Angeles County, and the city of San Francisco. Theater sources claim they expect to be allowed to operate by July 10, but the really meaningful date is July 24 — and in any event, those major-city locations typically represent less than 10 percent of the total national business.
So this was expected to be the month movie theaters would reopen nationwide after the quarantine forced a temporary shutdown—and it may still happen. No matter when it does, the fact is it has to happen; too much money is at stake for the studios, the filmmakers, the distributors and the theaters themselves to remain out of business for much longer, and while professional sports like the NBA and the NHL tentatively plan to restart without audiences, Hollywood still needs the theaters and the patrons that come with them.

Last month, AMC announced its reopening plan, which includes social distancing protocols and an aggressive cleaning strategy called Safe & Clean:
...Seat capacity restrictions, social distancing efforts, commitments to health, new intensified cleaning protocols, contactless ticketing and expanded mobile ordering of food & beverages are all vital elements of AMC Safe & Clean. Importantly, too, we also have invested millions and millions of dollars in high tech solutions to sanitation, disinfection and cleanliness, such as the ordering of electrostatic sprayers, HEPA filter vacuum cleaners and MERV 13 air ventilation filters wherever we can. 
After some controversy on whether or not masks would be mandatory for patrons, AMC decided to insist on requiring masks. Other chains are following suit.

Here in NYC, the second phase of our reopening plan is in effect, although movie theaters are not officially included in this phase, and won’t be for awhile. I don’t need to explain to you how vital the New York market is. This is all uncharted territory, so things could change even more than they already have... but for now, let’s look at some of what we’ll see when we do come back to the theaters. Links to the trailers are in the titles.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Harlem Rides the Range

Harlem Rides the Range
YouTube viewing

I really wanted to write about a black cowboy movie but thought I’d have to settle for one from the 70s or 80s. Then I came across this discovery: Herb Jeffries (AKA Herbert Jeffrey) was a singing cowboy from the 30s who starred in westerns with all-black casts.

He was very light-skinned (his mom was white) but identified as black. He started out as a singer in Detroit and moved to Chicago. In 1931 he joined Earl Hines’ band for a few years and then moved to LA in 1934. In time he became part of Duke Ellington’s band and lowered his vocal range to sound more like Bing Crosby.

While touring in the South with Hines, Jeffries experienced racism for the first time; the band could only play in tobacco warehouses and black-only theaters. When he saw black kids watching westerns, he decided they should have a black cowboy hero of their own.

He hooked up with producer Jed Buell, raised some money and wrote songs for the film. Jeffries had learned about horse riding on his grandfather’s farm, so he cast himself in the lead and used makeup to darken his skin.


Harlem on the Prairie was shot in five days in 1937 and though the critical reaction was mixed, it got a write-up in Time. “The Bronze Buckaroo” went on to make three more westerns, including the one I watched, Harlem Rides the Range, from 1939. I’m sorry to say it’s not very good; the acting is amateurish, the editing uninspired and there are only two songs in the hour-long movie.

That said, Jeffries was a good singer and the fact that his movies got made at all is an accomplishment in itself worth noting. He appeared in other non-western movies and television later in life, including an episode of The Virginian. A documentary short, A Colored Life, was made about him in 2008.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gene Autry vs. Roy Rogers

Singing cowboys (and cowgirls) have been around almost as long as sound in motion pictures. I can’t say I have much experience with them. I remember some of the country records my father listened to by self-styled cowboys—Marty Robbins, Freddy Fender, Tex Ritter—but as a kid, I never associated singing cowboys with the movies. I suppose my father must have watched singing cowboy movies growing up and then later, as an adult, but I don’t recall seeing any on TV.

If you had asked me back then, I would’ve said Gene Autry was the owner of the California Angels and Roy Rogers was the fast food restaurant. Even when I discovered who they were beyond those roles, I can’t say I cared much; westerns were what my parents watched. Now, many years later, as I re-examine westerns, it occurs to me that my education would be incomplete without a foray into the sub-genre of the western musical, and the two guys who dominated the field like oil rigs on the plains of Texas.

Here’s a top ten list of singing cowboys and cowgirls featuring some names you may not know. Here’s a history of the sub-genre, with a heavy focus on Autry and Rogers. With this post, I’m mostly interested in seeing their movies (and a bit of their TV shows) and seeing which one of them I like better. I realize I’m working from a small test sample, given the breadth of their careers, but I’m guessing their movies followed a formula and rarely strayed from that formula. My small sample will probably be enough.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Maverick Queen

The Maverick Queen
YouTube viewing

This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m guessing Pearl Grey realized from an early age he needed to change his name and become famous for something, so no one would ever have to call him “Pearl” again. Good thing he went with his middle name instead and became the Western writer Zane Grey.

Before Larry McMurtry, before Louis L’amour, there was Zane Grey. His novels and stories redefined the Wild West for a generation of readers, and needless to say, they were translated into numerous films and TV episodes. There is a Zane Grey Museum, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, the town where he lived after his marriage for a time.

Grey played baseball; he was a pitcher and then an outfielder at the University of Pennsylvania and had a cup of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. For a time, he followed his father in the field of dentistry, but what he really wanted to do was write.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Decision at Sundown

Decision at Sundown
YouTube viewing

Would you follow a man on a mission of revenge?

In the old west, disputes were settled from the barrel of a gun, and wrongs done a man were never forgotten. Sure, it may take years, time that could be better spent thinking about it and realizing it’s probably not worth nursing a vendetta for quite so long and moving on with life instead—settling in a town with a peculiar yet ironically fitting name somewhere, getting a steady job punching cows, marrying an ordinary-looking girl but keeping the town whore’s address in your little black book, having a couple of kids and developing a drinking habit that’ll ensure you die before the age of forty, which was just about the average life expectancy of most people in the old west anyway—but you don’t care! Because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, or at least what the screenplay tells him to do. Would you devote your life to seeing justice done, even if you may not have all the facts or may not be sure it even is justice?

You’d do it—for Randolph Scott!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Television: Wagon Train

Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to NBC in April 1964. The ex-policeman turned television writer-producer had made in-roads into the new medium with scripts for anthology series and briefly had a short-lived military series called The Lieutenant, but longed for the ability to address social issues without contending with conservative network censors.

He knew science fiction was a tough sell though, so when he entered the office of producer Herb Solow, he nervously handed him a piece of paper with his treatment on it and likened his proposed series to something more familiar: a western. Specifically, a western that had been going strong since 1957, on two networks, called Wagon Train.

Spun off from a 1950 John Ford movie, Wagon Master, it lasted eight seasons and 284 episodes on first NBC, then ABC. The original stars, Ward Bond (from the original movie) and Robert Horton, were together for the first four seasons. The show centered around a wagon train, obviously, of 19th-century settlers moving to Oregon, led by Bond. Horton served as advance scout for the train. There were also recurring characters who worked with Bond and protected the settlers. The executive producers were Howard Christie and Richard Lewis.

I never gave much thought to the Trek connection (however loose it is), but I watched it wondering how much WT was like Trek, if at all. My conclusion: not that much, but maybe it’s not that obvious based on only three random episodes?

Monday, June 15, 2020

Warlock

Warlock
YouTube viewing

He was never as big a star as the other two guys. The show made him a star within its context; he did little work outside of it—but because the show was and is so beloved, so cherished, the brand of stardom bestowed upon him probably felt almost as big as the other two.

DeForest Kelley would’ve turned 100 this past January. We still remember him because of the passion, courage and humor he brought to one of the greatest shows in television history. His role was the conscience of the show, its emotional heart that served as the counterbalance to its intellectual side, and he did it memorably and well.

Long before he went where no man had gone before, though, he had a successful career in a far different context: the western.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Hell’s Hinges

Hell’s Hinges
YouTube viewing

Jeanine Basinger described William S. Hart the following way in her book Silent Stars:
His eyes contain no warmth, no little twinkle to signal to the audience that he actually has a heart of gold; in fact, his eyes are mean—small and hard. He gives off no sign of emotion or attitude, no hint of what he may do next. He just stands there, like a rock in Monument Valley, and it’s up to us to figure him out. He doesn’t even seem to be an actor. Rather, his presence seems to say, “This is what a western hero looks like”—his behavior, his look, his truth. Whatever action Hart takes will explain what the American West was all about.
While watching him in the film Hell’s Hinges, my initial impression was he reminded me of Gary Cooper: tall, laconic, taciturn. Unlike Cooper, Hart did seem to have a hardness to his on-screen presence, a quiet intensity that burned even in his vulnerable moments.

Before John Wayne, before Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea and Roy Rogers, there were two big-name western stars: Tom Mix and William S. Hart, and they dominated the silent era. Perhaps I’ll talk about Mix another day. Today it’s all about Hart.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Loews JC to get $40M renovation!



...Under the new plan, Friends of the Loew’s will be involved in the renovation plans, and oversee community programming, while the commercial operator will be charged with finding national and international acts to perform at the 3,000-seat theater.
UPDATE 6.15: I had thought Friends of the Loews would have made a statement by now, but they haven’t yet, so I’ll chime in with my thoughts. First, all due credit for this victory, in a battle that had gone on at least since 2014, goes to Colin Egan and everyone at FoL for keeping this special place viable and functional for decades. They are the real heroes here.

FoL has said in the past the future of the Loews was as a non-profit venue that caters to the headliners as well as the local acts, so when I see statements regarding “national and international acts,” I got a bit concerned, so I hope they will publicly renew their commitment to this path soon, a plan which is in the city’s best interests as well as the theater’s. To his credit, mayor Steven Fulop specifically mentioned the diverse communities within JC in Thursday‘a press conference, so I remain hopeful for the moment. Also, I believe old movies will continue to have a place at the Loews, at an affordable price, that everyone can enjoy.

Fulop and JC would be wise to continue to emphasize the Loews’ convenient location across the street from the PATH train, only minutes from midtown Manhattan. While not the same thing, I believe lessons can and must be learned from the fustercluck that resulted from transportation from the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands a few years ago, and support mass transit during major events, such as a concert at the Loews.

Plus, I hope the Loews’ renewal will mean downtown JC’s renewal. I’ve walked around the area surrounding the theater; it’s not terrible, but it could be better—and “better” does not necessarily mean homogenized and made to look like everyplace else while stripping it of its cultural identity. There can and should be a balance.

And all of this, of course, is contingent on a solution to our Much Bigger Problem coming as soon as possible. Still, this news gives us a future to which we can look forward.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Outlaw

The Outlaw
YouTube viewing

I was going to spend this post about The Outlaw talking about Howard Hughes, about the real Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, but the truth is, this is such a bad movie that I can’t be bothered—and I was disappointed, too, because Walter Huston is in it and I had enjoyed every other film of his I had seen—even Kongo! And this is all before I get to Jane Russell.

No one in it acts like a normal human being. (Well, maybe the middle-aged Mexican woman does. Her I liked.) The major bone of contention between Billy and Doc is over a horse. I swear to god they fight over this horse for most of the movie. They fight over Russell, too—she starts out with Doc but ends up with Billy—but at one point, when offered the choice of Russell or the horse, Doc actually chooses the horse.

HE CHOOSES THE HORSE OVER JANE FREAKING RUSSELL.

Think about that.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)
YouTube viewing

My parents were part of a generation that revered westerns. My mother still watches them, mostly TV shows on one of the nostalgia channels. It’s difficult to say whether or not she has a passion for them like I have one for, say, Star Trek.

If you were to ask her, she probably could list a favorite show or a favorite movie, but to articulate further about it—favorite episodes, characters, actors—might be harder, but then, the fan mentality isn’t something that comes easily to her, if at all. I suspect she still watches westerns out of habit. I never get the sense from her of “Oh boy, here’s that Bonanza episode where Hoss gets a rhinoplasty; I can’t wait to see it again.”

For the so-called “greatest generation,” though, as well as the Boomers that followed, westerns were a big part of their cultural identity. That’s something I’ve understood intellectually as a Gen X-er, but to me it’s another genre, like spy thrillers or mysteries. I have my favorite movies and actors, of course, but I’ve never really gotten why it was as huge as it was in its heyday.

Guess what we’re gonna be talking about this month, kids?

Disclaimer: we all get that these movies and TV shows were made during a time when knowledge and appreciation of the Wild West as it really was, relations between Indians and whites, gender roles, etc., was limited and biased. We acknowledge the stereotypes and distortions of history without taking them to heart and will opt to find the good in these stories regardless—and there’s plenty of good to be found.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Sweeney Todd

The third annual Broadway Bound Blogathon is an event spotlighting film adaptations of Broadway shows, hosted by Taking Up Room. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Netflix viewing

Stephen Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday back in March (his day falls four days after mine), and despite the quarantine, an all-star gala was still able to be held in April—online.

The Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan, like the rest of Broadway, is currently shut down (the adaptation of the film Mrs. Doubtfire was playing). The original opened in 1918 under the name Henry Miller’s Theatre and went through different incarnations until the interior was demolished in 2004. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2007 and was re-christened for Sondheim in 2010. Among the productions that have played there include Our Town, Born Yesterday, Witness for the Prosecution, Cabaret, Bye Bye Birdie and Beautiful.

A giant of the American stage, Sondheim has composed songs and/or written lyrics for shows the whole world knows: West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, plus lyrics for songs from the movies Reds and Dick Tracy. He’s got eight Tonys—that’s more than any other composer, kids—plus eight Grammys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer, among many other awards and honors.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Will ‘Tenet’ bring back movie audiences?

“...In some respects opening this movie in July seems like a very smart move because the landscape is so wide open.... [b]ut anyone who says they know what is going to happen is lying.”
Okay, it’s been a few months.

I’ve done my best to maintain my spirits. Not easy, as I’m sure you’re aware. Virginia and I talk every night—needless to say I miss her terribly—she about all the online music groups she’s joined; me about the new novel I’m writing. It’s a rewrite of a SF script that was gonna be a graphic novel years ago. It’s going well. Baseball no longer seems relevant for fiction and I’m not sure I have the will to return to my previous manuscript anyway.

I’ve kept this blog active with talk about old movies, and it’s been helpful for me. My little world tour made me aware of films I never knew about before and others I would like to blog about at a later date. This month I’m gonna tackle westerns. I hope it’s been entertaining for you so far... but now it’s time to talk about the future.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Asterix and Cleopatra

Asterix and Cleopatra
YouTube viewing

I was halfway through art school when I decided I’d rather study cartooning than illustration. Many of my friends wanted to break into professional comics, which to them meant Marvel and DC Comics. A few already did while they were still in school, so I thought I had to draw superheroes too, and to draw like them: men and women with perfect physiques in a semi-realistic style. I did my best, but it was a struggle. One of my teachers recommended I look to a different model of successful comics: a series out of France called Asterix.

European comics, or bande dessinée, as the French call them, have a rich and diverse history, one which is not dominated by superheroes. For years, the newsstand magazine Heavy Metal exposed Americans to a more grownup and sophisticated alternate world of comics storytelling devoid of the childish power fantasies of Marvel and DC, but the tradition goes back much further, with one of the biggest and most important titles of the medium being the series Tintin. And it wasn’t just original creations: for decades, Donald Duck was a megastar in Europe in comics form.

European comics characters crossed over into movies and TV when Kevin Feige was still in diapers. Some examples Americans knew about for years include the animated film version of Heavy Metal; the Jane Fonda flick Barbarella, and of course, The Smurfs on Saturday mornings!

Friday, May 29, 2020

Walkabout

Walkabout
YouTube viewing

Walkabout is actually an Australian co-production with the UK, helmed by an English director, Nicolas Roeg, but it’s plenty Australian enough. Next year will mark its fiftieth anniversary, and time has been good to it. As recently as 2016, Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg (the director’s son) spoke to The Guardian about the making of the film.

Here’s a brief explanation of the Australian outback and here’s a short video of it from 2014. I find it both beautiful and terrifying in its starkness: it’s pure nature untamed, as far removed from civilization as you can get on Planet Earth and it dares you to survive there if you can.

Director Roeg gets it all in his film: the bleak and harsh landscape mixed with the breathtaking beauty of its plant and animal life. I found myself thinking of the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi in the sense of the contrast between the modern, “civilized” world and the primal world of nature. Indeed, Roeg encourages that contrast in the editing; in one sequence, the hunting and slaughtering of an animal is juxtaposed with a butcher in a meat market.


As a story, I didn’t completely get why Agutter and young Luc get there in the first place: in the beginning we see them on what looks like a picnic in the outback with their dad, and then all of a sudden it’s like Dad goes bananas and takes out a gun and shoots at them? And then he sets his car on fire and shoots himself? Director Roeg offers nothing in the way of an explanation, and ultimately it doesn’t matter—he had to get the kids in the outback and lost somehow—but the way it unfolds is bizarre.

Agutter and Luc’s nameless protagonists adjust to their situation better than you’d think: no freaking out at the reality of their situation—one minute being on a picnic with Dad, the next struggling to survive in the midst of a wasteland after seeing Dad commit suicide. You’d almost think they were on holiday at times.


You know what became of Agutter after this—Logan’s Run, American Werewolf in London, among other things (apparently she was also in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the first Avengers movie too); and Luc Roeg went on to become a producer (he worked on We Need to Talk About Kevin)—but I wanna talk about David Gulpilil, who portrayed the Aboriginal dude who encounters them during their sojourn. To me it didn’t even seem like he was acting; I thought he was real.

Walkabout was Gulpilil’s first film; he was seventeen at the time. Roeg found him when he went location scouting in the Aboriginal community of Maningrida, in Arnhem Land, where Gulpilil went to school. Walkabout made him a sensation. He’s been in some big movies since: Crocodile Dundee (of course), The Right Stuff, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, the Hugh Jackman-Nicole Kidman romance Australia, plus some TV work. He was born in the Northern Territory district as a Yolngu and is also known as a ceremonial dancer, singer and tracker, in addition to being a children’s book author and a mentor to other Australian indigenous peoples.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Xala

Xala
YouTube viewing

I’m glad I found one pre-1980 African film during this cinematic world tour to write about. I can’t say I know anything about the kinds of movies that come from the motherland; any film set in Africa I’ve seen was usually produced by an American studio, like Disney’s Queen of Katwe, or a European one, like the animated Kirikou and the Sorceress or the more recent A United KingdomThe Gods Must Be Crazy may be the only other African-produced film I’ve written about here (South Africa and Botswana, according to IMDB).

Senegal is in west Africa. Here’s a pre-virus profile of the country from the BBC, but the key bit of info here is this: Senegal won its independence from France in 1960. Three years later came the debut film, a short, from a man who would go on to become one of Africa’s most prominent cinematic voices: Ousmane Sembène.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven)
YouTube viewing

Powell & Pressburger. I’ve wanted to see a Powell & Pressburger film for the longest time. I think I might’ve seen The Red Shoes during my video store years, but if I did, it might have been playing while I was helping customers and therefore couldn’t give it the attention such a movie deserves.

You can spot a P&P film for several reasons, but mostly because of the color. Did any other filmmakers in the Golden Age era use color as brilliantly as P&P? (Douglas Sirk probably comes closest.) Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure, but I suspect whenever Hollywood used Technicolor back then, it was in a more show-off manner: as part of an “event” picture, like Oz or Wind or Robin, or for a splashy musical or a Cinescope picture.

I don’t get that sense from P&P. They used it prominently and they were obviously proud of it, but I suspect it was treated as just one of several integral elements to their movies which they happened to do better than most: the cinematography, the lighting, the set design—and I can sense this just from looking at clips of their films... though I could be wrong.