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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The One Armed Swordsmen

The One Armed Swordsmen
YouTube viewing

You would think a one-armed swordsman would be a rare thing indeed. You would think well, center of gravity is off, balance is tricky, upper body strength would be compromised—it might be possible to go through life that way if you work hard enough at it, but you wouldn’t see very many guys doing it, and certainly not in the same place. You would think that.

But you don’t live in a kung fu movie.

What would a cinematic trip around the world be without some chop-socky fighting action? I remember watching martial arts films on the weekends on TV (I believe Channel 5 here in New York would show them) and they were like superhero cartoons in a way: the over-the-top violence, the exaggerated characters, the outrageous abilities they possessed. And all of it badly dubbed, of course.

No doubt Asian countries see these films differently than we Westerners. Martial arts films speak to their history, their culture, their mythology, and though they may seem alike after so many of these films have been cranked out, one could say the same about American Westerns, with whom they have quite a bit in common. And when it comes to martial arts films, one name stands head and shoulders above the pack: the Shaw Brothers.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin
YouTube viewing

In Soviet Russia, movies watch you!

Okay, so much for the cheap joke...

Here’s everything you need to know about the Russian Revolution of 1905. Here’s how the town of Odessa factored into the revolution as a result of the pogroms against its Jewish population. And here’s the reality behind the mutiny on the Russian navy’s flagship that inspired the breathtaking film Battleship Potemkin. Pay attention because there’ll be a quiz later.

And as an aside: much, much better writers than Yours Truly have discussed the pros and cons of communism. I’m not interested in going down that path. Leave discussion of Lenin and Marx (not that one) on the table. My only concern is the movie.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Strange World of Coffin Joe

The Strange World of Coffin Joe
YouTube viewing

I guess it was inevitable during this travelogue of foreign movies that I’d come across one I didn’t like. Understand, I’m trying to find more than just straight dramas. I’ve also been looking for films in other genres, so when I discovered this Brazilian horror anthology, I knew I had to include it, even if there are better classic Brazilian films out there. But we can learn from the crappy movies too, right?

Jose Mojica Marins died back in February. He was the director and star of the film and creator of the “Coffin Joe” character, who appeared in ten films, three TV shows and various other pop culture detritus and is as big in Brazil as Jason and Freddy are to Americans. JMM played Coffin Joe in the majority of the films.

Coffin Joe’s first appearance was in the 1964 film At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which JMM also co-wrote and starred in. It’s a heartwarming tale of an undertaker looking for the “perfect woman” to bear the perfect child (shades of Rosemary’s Baby), but rather than take out an ad on Match.com, he does things like kidnap his best friend’s wife and pick up chicks on holidays. It was the beginning of Brazilian horror cinema. Here’s a piece from 2017 on modern Brazilian horror.

The Strange World of Coffin Joe is an anthology hosted by Coffin Joe; he appears in the beginning spouting some pseudo-mystical gobbledygook meant to sound scary. There are three stories: one about a doll maker and his daughters who are terrorized by some hoodlums; one about a seller of balloons who stalks some random girl; and one about some wacko professor (played by JMM) who tortures a couple to prove his theories about the true nature of love.


Since it’s an anthology, comparisons spring to mind immediately of Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, Tales From the Crypt, Twilight Zone The Movie, etc., all of which came later, of course, and had much bigger budgets. The third story is perhaps the “best,” in that it’s the goriest: a Grand Guignol of Biblical allusions, cannibalism and sadism. For 1968, I suppose this particular story is way out there, as disturbing as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, The Exorcist and other early gore-fests, and y’know, kudos to JMM for pushing the boundaries...

...but I didn’t see why I should care about any of it. The first story was laughably predictable (though I’ll concede it may not have been that way in 1968) and the second was dull and dragged on too long. The women in all three stories were passive and flat in character, the editing was choppy, the acting amateurish and the stories were less than compelling.

I don’t know if Strange World is characteristic of the Coffin Joe films in general, but I suspect it is. A low budget is no excuse for a bad story—George Romero did so much with so little. Still, JMM clearly is an important figure in Brazilian cinema, so he must’ve done something right.

UPDATE 5.25.20: As you might expect, Le has thoughts on this: “Although I’m not very familiar with his work, I can say Coffin Joe is the equivalent of Ed Wood. He did trash films, but did what he loved (no wonder he took nearly 40 years to finish his trilogy, due to censorship and budget issues) and he also embraced the trash persona, appearing in costume in several events.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

La Strada

La Strada
YouTube viewing

Okay, I know La Strada is a Fellini movie, but can we talk about Giulietta Masina for a minute? The first time I saw her was in Nights of Cabiria and I thought she was terrific in that, but omigod, I think I’ve fallen in love with her after watching her in this one. She is adorable! She has eyes like Joan Blondell, a sweet and endearing smile, and I love that pixie haircut of hers.

And she was an excellent actress. She may not have been a sex goddess like her fellow Italians Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, but after seeing her as a spunky, worldly streetwalker in Cabiria, she went in the other direction and played an innocent waif of a girl who you just wanted to hug and take as far, far away from Anthony Quinn as possible. Madonna and whore: not exactly an original combination, but what can I say? That’s how I discovered her.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Awara

Awara (AKA Awaara)
YouTube viewing

Bollywood! I first explored the wild world of Indian cinema last year with my profile of contemporary superstar Amitabh Bachchan, but this time I thought I’d look at classic Bollywood, with a film all the way from 1951 called Awara.

I suppose I had assumed the tradition of Indian musicals was a more recent phenomenon; not sure why—but this film, too, is a song-and-dance joint, albeit a rather dramatic and serious (AND LONG) one. To someone in the West more familiar with the structure of shows featuring the music of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, the Sherman Brothers, etc., Bollywood music can sound pretty different.

And I’m not just talking about the melodies and rhythms, which were nice. I noticed within this movie lots of recurring refrains within individual songs and a predilection for metaphor and emotion over storytelling and characterization. The music in Awara communicates the story, but not to the same degree as a Western musical—and perhaps that’s not a big surprise, given how melodramatic the story is.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Pearl (1947)

The Pearl (1947)
YouTube viewing

Movie fans who think of Mexican cinema these days think of the “three amigos:” Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. Between these three guys, they’ve won ten Oscars, made millions and thrilled audiences worldwide with their singular, unique visions.

Mexico has a strong tradition in film that goes back at least as far as the dawn of the sound era in Hollywood. People speak of a Golden Age which produced a wide variety of stars and filmmakers, some of whom crossed over into American cinema. Aurora has blogged at length about some of these stars; here’s a wider study on the era from last year.

Mexico underwent a wave of urbanization in the 1940s, and the film industry benefited. Studios developed in Mexico City, and while the US and Europe were making war movies, Mexican cinema was able to be more diverse in its subject matter, and prominent filmmakers emerged. One example from this era is a fella named Emilio Fernandez.

Monday, May 4, 2020

M

M: A City Searches For a Murderer
YouTube viewing

Fritz Lang left his native Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis (Joseph Goebbels had offered him a job as a studio head) and three years later, worked in Hollywood, where he made such films as The Big Heat, Clash By Night, Scarlet Street, and many more in a career that lasted into the 60s. Prior to all of that, he was a successful filmmaker back home as well, and for a long time, he worked with a collaborator who was a vital part of that success—his wife.

Thea von Harbou was a novelist turned screenwriter. She met Lang while working on an adaptation of one of her novels in 1918, which led to an affair. In 1920 she divorced her husband and married Lang two years later. During the 20s, she worked not only with Lang but other filmmakers, including FW Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer. In 1927 she adapted for the screen her novel Metropolis. (Lang did some uncredited work as well, but the screen credit belongs solely to her.)

TVH would divorce Lang in 1933 due to him having multiple affairs. That was the year Hitler came to power in Germany and regrettably, she supported the Nazis. However, she also went on to directing a few films and writing many more—plus she spoke out publicly in favor of women’s right to abortion.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Persona

Persona
YouTube viewing

I think for a long time, the phrase “art cinema” was synonymous with Ingmar Bergman: black and white; really deep thoughts about Life, The Universe and Everything; playing chess with Death and other abstract visuals, etc. And to Bergman’s credit, he became popular enough that such imagery became so cliche. But does that mean people love his films the way they love those of Kubrick or Scorsese?

There are a bunch of YouTube videos in which critics and filmmakers and scholars talk at length about why Bergman is so great and what his films are “really” all about, but if I’m coming at him from the perspective of just another film fan, albeit one with a little more knowledge of film history than some, I shouldn’t need any of that for me to appreciate his work; indeed, I’m trying hard to avoid those videos while writing this post about Persona because I want to be as unbiased in my opinions as possible.

Some might say knowing Bergman and his worldview is necessary to grok his films—but did the average moviegoer have that information when he made his movies during the sixties, pre-Internet? If Bergman was the capital-A Ar-TEEst he was proclaimed to be, I imagine he’d have wanted his work to speak for itself. So let’s give it a shot.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Diabolique (1955)

Diabolique (1955) (AKA Les Diaboliques)
YouTube viewing

In 1940, Henri-Georges Clouzot was in a desperate state. The screenwriter had spent five years in a sanatorium during the 30s, recovering from tuberculosis, and while he had used the time to further study his craft, his scripts were selling poorly and he was running out of money. Meanwhile, World War 2 had broken out. When an offer came his way to work for a German-based film production company, HGC had no choice but to take it.

It led to him becoming a director, but after the war, he and other filmmakers were tried in court as German collaborators. He was banned from making films for life, but that sentence was reduced to only two years thanks to a bunch of artists rallying to his cause, including Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Thanks to their efforts in reducing his exile, HGC went on to become one of the finest filmmakers in the long and proud history of French cinema, and one of his greatest hits is today’s subject, Diabolique, an entertaining thriller he co-adapted from a book and made with his wife.


Brazilian actress Vera Gibson-Amado had divorced French actor Leo Lapara when she met HGC in the late 40s. Lapara had roles in earlier HGC films and she worked as a continuity assistant. Long story short, Vera and HGC fell in love, got married and she became Vera Clouzot.

As a film actress, she would only make three films before her death from a heart attack in 1960, but they were all for her husband and the production company named for her, Vera Films. Diabolique was one. If it feels like a Hitchcock film to you, well, the Master did express an interest in making it, but HGC beat him to the punch.


In the movie, the wife and mistress of the same man conspire to kill him, but after they do the deed, strange things occur that lead them to believe he’s not as dead as they thought. Vera plays the wife, future Oscar winner Simone Signoret plays the mistress. Their characters both work for male lead Paul Meurisse, the man in both their lives, in the same boarding school, so they’re all closely connected even outside their infidelities.

As you might expect, the mounting evidence that something about the murder didn’t go right hinders the women’s partnership, and while their triangle is an open secret amongst their co-workers (and even the kids in the school), Meurisse’s sudden disappearance raises some uncomfortable questions the women have to deal with. The truth revealed at the end definitely surprised me, though I had to think further to remember the clues as to its plausibility.

Perhaps you remember Sharon Stone’s remake in 1996. If not, you didn’t miss much; it bombed big time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story
YouTube viewing

It’s time once again for us to eat our cinematic vegetables! I’ve gotten kinda flabby around the middle gorging on Hollywood films, so I’m gonna change my diet for awhile and indulge in a few foreign movies, the kind that are supposed to be “good for you.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m only being slightly serious about this. It’s one of the oldest debates on this blog: just because some big-shot critic says a certain movie is great, does that mean you have to like it too? Especially if it comes across as “boring”? (Please note the quotation marks around that word.) I still haven’t found the answer to that question; I doubt I ever will—but I do want to mix things up around here and look at some foreign films.

Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is one whom I’ve heard a lot about but whose work I had never seen before. Omigod, do the critics fall all over themselves praising this guy: his films often make the “all-time best of” lists, Criterion has his films in its collection, they discuss him in film school, the works—so he must be worth watching, right? Well, I was very lucky to have found one of his biggest hits online to watch: the film Tokyo Story. I’m pleased to say I thought it was good, though it took quite awhile for me to appreciate.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones
YouTube viewing

How awesome was Paul Robeson? The son of a former slave, he graduated high school and college as class valedictorian. He played in the NFL while studying law. He was successful on the foreign and domestic stage. He was one of the top recording artists of the 20th century. He was a civil rights activist and supported progressive political causes in other countries. He wasn’t a saint—he cheated on his wife multiple times, for instance—but he was a proud black man who saw and did it all during a time when institutional racism held back many black people in America. Oh, and he made movies too.

Among the many, many awards and tributes he received, both in life and death, include the naming of a Manhattan apartment building after him. Robeson lived in what is now The Paul Robeson Residence in uptown Washington Heights from 1939-41, and was one of the first black tenants. Count Basie and Joe Louis also lived there. It’s both a civic and national landmark—and the street on which it resides, Edgecombe Avenue, is co-named “Paul Robeson Boulevard.”

Of course he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A Criterion box set of his films is available. James Earl Jones starred as Robeson in a one-man Broadway play which was turned into a TV movie.  12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen had plans for a biopic, though that was over five years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Double Harness

Double Harness
TCM viewing

Often with old Hollywood movies, one gets a glimpse into the morality of the times they were made in, which were dramatically different from today. For one who never lived in those times, who only knows of them secondhand, it can drive one crazy to see—and by “one,” of course, I’m talking about Yours Truly, but it sounds fancier and more highfalutin’ if I phrase it that way, don’t you think?

I have trouble imagining real people acting the way they do in Double Harness, partly because it’s about rich white people who apparently have nothing better to do than play head games with each other over love and marriage, but also because the rules of the game, the implied moral code that defines their privileged and rarefied world, has little bearing on the 21st century world from which I’m observing. Most of the time, I can play along, accept this sort of thing at face value and say okay, I get it, this is how people acted back then and I just have to accept it. Sometimes, I can’t.

As I write this, it occurs to me that tone helps. If this was an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, it would’ve gone down much, much easier—but the women and men in this movie are so earnest about how they should behave towards each other, even when they do things they probably shouldn’t, it makes me wanna say “Get over yourselves!” to the lot of them. Are these the kinds of things worth occupying your time?


Ann Harding is a single high-society dame whose little sister is getting married and, perhaps hearing her own biological clock ticking, starts getting Ideas about what it takes to grab a man. She hypothesizes love is unnecessary in a marriage because Reasons. Platonic pal William Powell is a playboy heir who likes to run around. She launches a scheme to trap him into marriage and make an honest man out of him. It works, but complications, as they often do, ensue.

At the start, Harding is convinced she doesn’t have much to offer a potential husband, though it’s not like she’s down and out, especially given that Harness acknowledges the Great Depression as a fact of everyday life, more than once. She’s not standing on any bread lines. She can afford to go to the theater in the evenings in fancy dress, and she’s easy on the eyes. But I guess none of that is enough.

Her scheme depends on the notion that it’s improper for her to be alone with Powell in his pad, given his reputation—because it’s not like her family and acquaintances know him and her to be good friends who treat each other well, or more importantly, like she was a grown-ass woman and who she chooses to spend time alone with is her own damn business.


But her father catches the two of them talking like the consenting adults they are and concludes Powell must be putting the make on her, and she must be letting him (a much worse crime, of course)—therefore Powell must do “the honorable thing” and marry her, something he’s not eager to do, though not necessarily because of her. No one questions any of this because these are the rules of the game. Harding counts on her father’s reaction because she’s playing a game of her own, but the whole thing, the father’s attitude and Harding’s scheme alike, does not sound like normal human behavior.

Powell warns Harding that he’ll make a lousy husband, and sure enough, he chases around an old flame who also got recently married but still carries a torch for Powell. Meanwhile, little sister spends so much of her husband’s money she gets in debt. And how sure is Harding about this whole marriage-without-love plan anyway? This stuff was more interesting, but getting there was the hard part, because none of this felt like it mattered.

TCM played Harness as part of a TCM Film Festival “greatest hits” weekend, in lieu of the canceled actual fest. Karen singled Harness out as worth watching, so I gave it a try. It wasn’t terrible—Powell is always worth watching—I just felt uncomfortable with the triviality of the plot.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

Gulliver’s Travels (1939)
YouTube viewing

In 1726, before the American Revolution, before the births of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jonathan Swift published a novel with the humble title Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships. And if you think that’s long, you should’ve seen what he wanted to call it!

Swift’s piece of speculative fiction was a brutal satire of British society and politics, but somewhere along the way, people only remembered the tiny people and the giants and reinterpreted it as kiddie lit, which I suppose is like reading Animal Farm, remembering only the talking animals, and turning it into a nursery rhyme. Anyway, by 1939, it was deemed safe for the younglings and thus was turned into an animated musical because amusing little kids was totally Swift’s true intent all along.

I had talked about Fleischer Studios here before—the animation studio responsible for Betty Boop, Popeye, and other early 20th-century cartoon characters. They first brought Superman to the big screen shortly after his creation. Their rotoscoping technique of animation would be duplicated at Disney and elsewhere for decades to come.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Algiers

Algiers
YouTube viewing

In Jeanine Basinger’s book about the Old Hollywood approach to creating movie stardom, The Star Machine, she says that Charles Boyer “was every American moviegoer’s idea of Big-time French.” I imagine he came across as pretty exotic and cosmopolitan to audiences back then, like Maurice Chevalier and Jean Gabin. These days, when I think of French thespians, I tend to think of the ladies—Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Tatou, Juliette Binoche—before any fellas.

Even before the actors, though, I associate French cinema with the directors who came out of the New Wave era: Godard, Truffaut, etc. Call it a cultural shift, one where who makes a film became as important, if not more so, than who’s in it. The French were greatly responsible for that. Now that’s big-time.

I can’t say I know a great deal about Boyer beyond what I’ve read. MGM originally wanted him to do foreign-language versions of their English language hits, but once dubbing was used, duplicates became unnecessary. Hollywood still wanted Boyer, but he had to improve his English first (he could speak five other languages and made movies not only in France, but Germany too). He came back to Hollywood in 1934 and once it was determined the ladies in the audience responded to him, that’s when his stardom in America took off.


Algiers was the film that put him over the top. Set in the North African city in Algeria, it focuses on a French criminal who, after pulling off a major jewelry heist, set up shop in the seedy criminal quarter known as the Casbah and became a big-shot there for years. The cops could never touch him because he was so well-protected, but now they have a plan, which comes right as Boyer feels restless and is ready to leave the neighborhood he may rule like a king, but which has also become a prison to him.

The Casbah was in pretty bad shape even before this year. UNESCO declared it a “world heritage site” and efforts have been made to preserve it, despite the political upheavals of recent decades. This New York Times article goes into more detail. Plus, here are some first-hand accounts of the current state of the neighborhood.


It was hard to not look at Algiers through 21st-century eyes. I didn’t completely buy the cliche of glamor-girl Hedy Lamarr falling for bad-boy Boyer, though I did accept him falling for her. She represented the France he missed after being away for so long and believed he could recapture again—the movie hammers this point home pretty well. (I liked the line about how she reminded him of the subway.) I was reminded of Casablanca: foreigner in a foreign country he has learned to call home gets hung up over a girl who reminds him of the past but represents danger. Setting plays a vital role; as does local law and order.

Basinger discusses what made Boyer a star in his day:
To American audiences, Charles Boyer seemed the perfect lover for many reasons, Algiers chief among them. But women also thought he was a gentleman.... he had that gentlemanly quality, that elegance, that sense that he was offering his arm to a lady. He was an exotic French lover Americanized, democratized, and because of that, he seemed to be perfect to play in support of female movie stars.
Boyer seemed like a cliche to me only because his type had been imitated and parodied many times since Algiers. Sometimes it really is necessary to attempt to see an old movie the way audiences of its time saw it in order to appreciate it better. I haven’t mastered that ability yet.

Sigrid Gurie (second-billed over Lamarr) plays this local chick totally hung up on Boyer
for reasons I couldn’t exactly fathom. He, of course, takes her completely for granted.

A brief word about Lamarr. Much has been written about her prowess as a scientist and her contributions to inventions that still impact modern society. This was the first time I had seen her as an actress, and I can’t say I was bowled over by her. She wasn’t bad, but she wasn’t distinctive in the way a Garbo or a Dietrich were. She was gorgeous, but that was the extent of it. I probably need to see more of her films. If it weren’t for her, though, I couldn’t write this post for you to read on the Internet, so there’s that. Last year, Deadline announced that Gal Gadot would star in a biopic of Lamarr.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Lady of Burlesque

Lady of Burlesque
YouTube viewing

Well, I certainly didn’t expect a murder mystery from a movie titled Lady of Burlesque! Maybe I should’ve looked at the poster first. This one was kinda hard to follow for three reasons: a huge cast, with most of them talking a mile a minute, and in a hipster lingo from almost a century ago. It was worth it, though, to see Barbara Stanwyck shaking her moneymaker!

The history of burlesque dancing is a long one, covering much of world history, cultural mores, fashion, etc. Here’s a Cliff Notes version written by modern burlesque dancer Dita von Teese. For this post, we need to focus on one dancer in particular.

Gypsy Rose Lee was exposed to showbiz early in life. To support the family, she performed in vaudeville, dancing with her older sister, June Havoc, as kids. When June eloped, GRL was able to continue solo as a striptease artist. The legend has it that she chose this path when she had a wardrobe malfunction one night on stage that turned in her favor. She added humor to her act and became a star, performing as part of the Minsky Brothers’ burlesque show in New York.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Rain

Rain
YouTube viewing

W. Somerset Maugham was a doctor when his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897. It sold so well that he was able to pursue writing full-time. During World War One, he was one of a number of writers who doubled as ambulance drivers for the Allies, including Hemingway, EE Cummings, John Dos Passos, Robert Service and Gertrude Stein.

WSM would become one of the twentieth century’s most popular authors, with hits including Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge. In addition, he was a secret agent during WW1 for a time; his later novel, Ashenden, is said to have been an influence on Ian Fleming when he created James Bond.

In 1921, The Smart Set, an American lit mag, published a short story by WSM called “Miss Thompson,” later known as “Rain.” It was inspired by a trip WSM took by steamer to Pago Pago, in American Samoa, a locale notorious as one of the wettest places on Earth. According to Wikipedia, it gets 119 inches of rain per year, with a rainy season lasting from November to April. During his trip, WSM encountered a Miss Thompson on the boat as well as a missionary man, both of whom were models for the story’s main characters. The guest house where WSM stayed is now a notable landmark.