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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Revisiting Love Story (1970)

My recent experience has been that mentioning Love Story will generally 1) bring on sneers or giggles, or 2) prompt almost an involuntary uttering of the famous tagline "love means never having to say you're sorry." So with the film a fuzzy memory at best (I only saw it once decades ago as a teenager having been too young to see it on initial release), I decided to attend the 50th-anniversary screening thanks to TCM & Fathom Events. And the film was, and wasn't, as I remembered it, inspiring me to share here my spoiler-filled reasons why the film, while not a great one, isn't the schlocky, saccharine mess that its current reputation may have you believe.

As a brief refresher...the runaway 1970 hit was made from an Erich Segal screenplay that he subsequently turned into a novel to capitalize on the movie's popularity. For the film, the two New England college-student lovers from radically different economic backgrounds are portrayed by Hollywood up-and-coming actors Ali MacGraw (Jenny Cavilleri) and Ryan O'Neal (Oliver Barrett, IV). A small but critical supporting role of Oliver's father is played expertly by classic Hollywood suave leading man Ray Milland. Arthur Hiller directed for Paramount Pictures.
Ryan O'Neal and Ray Milland at the end of Love Story
It's not a bad movie--really!  Despite some script weaknesses, the film is cleverly crafted on several fronts. First, it's a study in storytelling economy with a running time just over 90 minutes: after a brief voiceover intro scene leading into the extended flashback, we are instantly at the lovers' first meeting. From there, months and years pass in leaps and bounds, with milestones in the lives of the characters being the only guide to time--meeting, finishing school, marriage, jobs, moving to a new city, etc. About two-thirds in, the critical, sad news about Jenny's terminal illness is revealed. The pace is quick but consistent and never rushed. Yet there is no unnecessary lingering for emotional effect.

Second, the visual symbolism is striking at times. I don't know the reason for nearly all the scenes being filmed in winter, but the abundant snow that required our protagonists to always be bundled up reflected their ongoing struggles with coming to terms with their relationship, their life choices, and tragedy--life can be tough and cold. The brief scenes set in summertime come as quite a shock.

Jenny and Oliver have a serious discussion in the cold
rain; snow is on the ground.
Oliver helps a weak Jenny across snow-covered Central Park
on her way to Mt. Sinai hospital.
Jenny and Oliver in a rare summer scene
The presence or absence of extras seemed significant, too. At the very end, when Oliver has left the New York hospital after Jenny's death, he wanders around in a snow-covered New York City street and Central Park setting that are completely devoid of other people - an impossibility in NYC--but the choice underscored Oliver's solitude in a world without Jenny. In the screenshots below, Oliver is a tiny image in the unmoving settings.

Third, each of the three main characters--Jenny, Oliver, and Oliver's wealthy father--are complex humans with inscrutable, or at least shifting, motives. Every viewer's reaction to each character is likely to be influenced by their age, status, gender, and life experience. Initially, Jenny's tough-girl persona ("the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass") understandably puts earnest Oliver on the defensive, but then later at times he is rigid and unyielding in their relationship. Oliver Sr. is stern and formal and wants Oliver Jr. to be cautious or at worse give Jenny up due to her lower social status; Oliver Jr's reaction to this in abruptly cutting himself and Jenny off from his parents is either appropriate or disproportionate to what is obviously a father trying to do right by his family depending on your viewpoint. Jenny is the voice of reason, trying unsuccessfully to get Oliver to ease up on his father. Roger Ebert references the characters' multidimensionality in his initial (4-star) review: "The movie is mostly about life, however, and not death. And because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we're moved by the film's conclusion. Why not?" 

Fourth, the soundtrack is really good. Because it has been so overplayed over the years, you can't blame modern audiences for souring on the theme song or other parts of the score. But it is perfectly tuned to the overall melancholy tone of the film, and has both a contemporary and classical feel appropriate for the story of a classical music student. The composer, Francis Lai, received the film's only Oscar. The main themes can be found here.

The film is a window into 1960s feminism. Viewed through a 21st-century lens, the character of Jenny is a study in quaint contrasts, perfectly reflecting the struggles of women of her era. Initially, her brass, smart-mouth persona complements her ambition as a smart young woman trying to make it in a man's world of music. She wants a career, she bucks convention, she's sexually liberated, she rejects her "old-school" Catholic upbringing for atheism. This places her squarely in the 1960s/1970s version of women's liberation. But many women of this era also were drawn powerfully back, by societal conventions, to being a traditional wife and mother, and we see this happen to Jenny as well. She gives up her career to marry Oliver and wants desperately to have his baby. She says to him when dying, "I don't care about music; I don't care about Paris." In her era, women had not fully figured out how to realize dueling ambitions of career and home--a struggle that while not completely resolved today, has shown considerable advancement.
Jenny dutifully pours coffee for Oliver after serving him breakfast
Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in one of the many film
adaptations of Camille
It's a modern La Dame aux Camélias! Opera fans know that a number of popular operas end immediately upon the dramatic death of the consumptive heroine -- Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata are probably the most famous. There is no epilogue - just the tragedy leaving the audience gasping for air. Walking out of Love Story, I was struck with how the sudden end of the film after Jenny's death paralleled these operas. But another lightbulb went on - Segal's story is Camille, the English language version of Dumas' novel La Dame aux Camélias that was the basis for Verdi's La Traviata and several film adaptations. The broad outlines of the story match perfectly. The two lovers are from opposite ends of society. The woman is, for a time, pulled into 'higher' class society because of her lover. The man's family's opposition to her causes deep stress and complications for the young lovers. Ultimately, the terminal illness of the woman brings about a reconciliation of sorts. 

I learned I wasn't the only one who saw the parallels; while I couldn't find the original quote, Wikipedia mentions film critic Judith Crist referring to the movie as "Camille...with bullshit." I'm not sure if Segal intended the parallels; a NY Times interview cites his personal experience and that of several contemporaries (including Al Gore!) as providing inspiration for the film, but no mention of Dumas' self-sacrificing heroine.

So if you've always avoided this one, or haven't seen it in decades, consider giving it a look. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime. As always, I'm interested in what you think of the film, so please comment below!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Two little mid-century British films for the holidays

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I've discovered two little black-and-white British films from the middle of last century that should be on everyone's holiday viewing list. Just like the next classic cinema fan I love The Bishop's Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, A Christmas Carol, Meet Me In St. Louis, etc. etc., but this year I was itching to discover films I hadn't seen, and of course, TCM obliged.

The Holly and The Ivy (1952)

What it is: The film was adapted from a play of the same name by English playwright Wynyard Browne, adapted for the screen by Anatole De Grunwald, who also produced the picture, and directed by George More O'Ferrall. It's set in 1948 England, in a small fictionalized town called Wyndenham, whose local parish is presided over by its hard-working but aging widowed parson played by renowed British actor of stage and screen, Ralph Richardson. On Christmas Eve his grown children and other family members dispersed around the country congregate at the family parsonage, bringing both literal and figurative baggage and brewing conflicts. Both past and present struggles threaten to ruin the family Christmas unless communication barriers are broken down and important understandings and compromises arrived at.

Why I loved it
Dutiful daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) enjoys a sweet
moment with Dad (Ralph Richardson) with boyfriend David
(John Gregson) in the background.
As in all movies I love, the film eloquently captures a past time and place, and helps the viewer understand, if not completely empathize with, the social mores and struggles of the film's characters. This film is relevant today, first, where faith in a higher power (often seen in the older generation) struggles against the non-faith or ambivalence of other parts of society (often younger generations). Second, I found the broader generational dynamics and other issues presented with more candor than is usually seen in films of this time. These include alcoholism, consumerism, dementia, pregnancy out of wedlock, and other secrets, which in this family are kept and then revealed when least expected.

Despite the dark tone of much of the movie, the characters shine with humanity and love for one another, and there are genuinely humorous moments. And when you start the film knowing it's a Christmas movie, you know you will be left with a positive feeling at the end.
Denholm Elliott, John Gregson, and Celia Johnson enjoy a
Christmas homecoming
The performances are wonderful. In addition to Ralph Richardson, you have Margaret Leighton as 'rebel' younger daughter Margaret Gregory, Celia Johnson as responsible older daughter Jenny Gregory, and Denholm Elliott as happy-go-lucky son Michael Gregory. Two elderly and somewhat eccentric aunts are played by Margaret Halston and Maureen Delaney, both of whom assayed these characters in the stage version of the story. The lovely soundtrack prominently featured the upbeat English carol The Holly and the Ivy, with occasional minor chords thrown in. My only issue with the film was the conclusion was a bit too tidy and up until that point the script was leisurely paced, with characters circling around and confronting each other delicately. But, if you are an Anglophile and film fan, you must see this one.
Celia Johnson (l) and Margaret Leighton have a sisterly
heart-to-heart whilst doing the washing up
Where you can find it: Those who subscribe to a cable service with TCM can access the film on the WatchTCM streaming app until December 31. It's also streaming on Kanopy for subscribers of that service. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, on which author and TCM friend Jeremy Arnold does an audio commentary track - I hope to add this to my collection at some point.
Ralph Richardson, Maureen Delany, and Margaret Leighton hope
for a happy Christmas
Cash on Demand  (1962)

What it is: Don't let the rather ridiculous and pedestrian title of this little gem keep you from checking it out. As TCM host Eddie Muller pointed out in his intro to the film, on the surface it's a heist film, but only slightly below the surface it's a modern Christmas-time redemption tale with echoes from Victorian England and Dickens' famous story of a mean old miser and the various ghosts who help him see the error of his ways. (Cash on Demand has no ghosts and no supernatural elements, though.) The film was made at Hammer Film Productions, better known for campy horror pictures during this time, and was expectionally directed by Quentin Lawrence.

From his seat, gentleman robber Gore-Hepburn (André Morell)
menaces Fordyce and Pierson (Peter Cushing and Richard Vernon).
Cash on Demand originated from a British TV drama episode called The Gold Inside, also directed by Lawrence. The film brings the great Peter Cushing (a Hammer horror regular) and André Morell to the roles of the miser and robber respectively. Cushing's character Fordyce, branch manager of a small town bank and boss from hell, berates his employees for tiny infractions and coolly admits he has no interest in them as humans. He is pretty hard on his downtrodden right hand man, chief clerk Pierson, played by Richard Vernon.

The great Peter Cushing ponders how to save his bank
Yet when Fordyce is sequestered in his private office the staff all do the best they can to enjoy their work environment; on December 23rd when this story takes place, they eagerly anticipate their staff holiday party. Then 'Colonel' Gore-Hepburn comes in, posing as a senior insurance inspector on a surprise visit; he deceives everyone with his imperious manner and sets in motion an ingenious plot to rob the bank of £90,000. This involves an extended confrontation between the two men in which Fordyce's composure slowly crumbles. A few plot twists later the film concludes in a tidy manner, this time totally appropriate to the narrative.
The expressions say it all here when the loot appears.
Why I loved it
At about 80 minutes, the film's efficient script unfolds in real time. It doesn't hide its 'Christmas movie' origins as from the very beginning several touches demonstrate that the action revolves around the holiday. And it's a blast to compare it to A Christmas Carol, with Fordyce as a clear Scrooge, and head clerk Pierson a clear Bob Cratchit stand in. The character of Gore-Hepburn is certainly not benevolent like most of the ghosts, but he does do one good turn at a key moment that makes you wonder about his motives. Yet for much of the film you can forget about Christmas as you get sucked into the suspense as step by step the robber executes his plan to make off with a small fortune. And in another element of suspense you wonder if and when the rest of the staff will realize what's happening quietly under their noses.
Great faces here by Norman Bird, Edith Sharpe and Lois Daine,
as the robbery is revealed to the staff
In its short running time all actors are at the top of their games, especially Cushing and Morell. The latter is alternately warm, then a snarling bully. Lawrence captures the action in a combination of wide shots and intense close-ups where the full variety of actors' facial expressions is on display. All in all it's a fantastic piece of entertainment that doesn't require a huge investment of time - invite the family to gather round and make this one part of your holiday party this or any year.

Where you can find it: If you don't have TCM, this one is up on YouTube at the moment--see below. It's also available on DVD both on its own and as part of a Sony collection of Hammer films.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

My Boston-area picks for 'Noirvember'

November is 'noirvember' for classic movie fans. After a spooky October of suspense and horror films, why not follow it up by celebrating Film Noir for an entire month? 

Tomorrow, 11/1 at the New England Conservatory, the Boston-based musical ensemble A Far Cry is presenting a concert of music of classic 'American Noir' by primarily European Jewish immigrant composers. The concert will feature adaptations of works of Korngold, Hermann, Barber and more. What a great way to get in the mood for noir!

The Harvard Film Archive has been running a B-Movie series since mid-September, and I'm looking forward to enjoying a few of these films during the third weekend in November. These are examples of true 'B-movie noir', with their tight storytelling and clever directing -- where truly less is more. 

Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum in When Strangers Marry
(Photo from the HFA Website)
Sun 11/24 at Harvard Film Archive. HFA is screening a double feature of short noirs directed in 1944 by William Castle: When Strangers Marry and The Mark of the Whistler. The former is a vehicle for Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum, and apparently is a murder mystery at its heart, with some melodrama thrown in. The latter features Richard Dix and Janis Carter--I had no idea about the 'Whistler' franchise, spun off from the popular radio series, but Richard Dix and other actors portrayed this fictional character in a few movies in the 1940s, all made at Columbia Pictures. 

Marsha Hunt, Claire Trevor and Dennis O'Keefe in Raw Deal.
(Photo from the HFA Website)

Mon 11/25 at Harvard Film Archive. The HFA B-movie series continues with a double feature of Raw Deal (1948) and Woman on the Run (1950). Raw Deal is an early entry in the filmography of Anthony Mann, stars Dennis O'Keefe and favorite actresses Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. Acclaimed noir cinematographer John Alton is credited in this one. For Woman on the Run, we gat Dennis O'Keefe again, though the film is directed by Norman Foster, a one-time Orson Welles protégé. The leading lady is Ann Sheridan, who is 'on the run'. Assuming I'm not overcommitted in preparing for Thanksgiving, I'll be there!
Use #noirvember on Twitter or Instragram for all kinds of fun stuff.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Alan Ladd blazes down the (Western) trail with 'Branded' (1950)

September 3rd marks the birthday of one of my favorite old Hollywood stars, Alan Ladd. To celebrate, I'm pleased to contribute this post to 'The Man Who Would Be Shane: The Alan Ladd Blogathon," hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out all the great posts this week HERE.

By 1950 when Branded came around, Alan Ladd was already a superstar. After tooling around in bit parts, he'd burst forth in 1942 in This Gun For Hire, in a noir anti-hero role, and his on-screen spark with co-star Veronica Lake prompted Paramount to pair them in multiple noir/adventure tales over the next few years. During this time though, Paramount was casting about for more properties to feature their cash cow, and Westerns seemed like a good match for Ladd's stoic tough-guy-with-a-sensitive-soul persona. His natural athleticism and comfort with horses (he owned his own ranch) could be put to good use. The first Western Ladd made was Whispering Smith (1948) and when it succeeded the next one wasn't far behind.

In Branded, Ladd embraces the Western with renewed gusto, and blazed open the Western trail that was to lead to many film successes in the 1950s. While nobody would put this one above his most iconic film, Shane, which would come in 1953, it's an altogether worthwhile piece of cinematic entertainment and in my personal top-five Ladd films. As in Shane, Ladd's character is a gunfighter with a murky past, also with a single, meaning-packed name: Choya (derived from cholla--a prickly cactus native to Mexico and the southwest U.S.).
Don't mess with me: Alan Ladd in Branded's opening scene
The novel Montana Rides by Evan Evans was adapted for the screen by Sydney Boehm and Cyril Hume, and Rudolph Maté was assigned to direct. Maté, who had been a renowned cinematographer, had recently made his limited foray into directing, but all his previous films were black and white dramas. Though the photography credit goes to Charles B. Lang, Jr., I imagine Maté had a lot to say about shot composition. Regardless, the breathtaking Technicolor views of the Arizona canyon country grounded the film in the rugged West, even if the narrative action pla in Texas near the Mexican border.

The time period is never specifically stated in the film, but seems to be consistent with a mid-late 19th century when the West was still a rough place for the white newcomers to the territory. Unscrupulous fortune seekers roamed around threatening ranchers and gunfighters challenged the establishment of an orderly society in small towns. It's this environment that we're thrown into after the opening credits have rolled -- we meet Choya, who's been holed up in a store trying to evade a posse, and with guns blazing makes a daring escape with his only friends (his guns) and kin (his horse). He's tracked down in the rugged country side by Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and convinced to go in with him on a con--for the promise of a fortune, Choya's to impersonate the long lost son of wealthy rancher Lavery (Charles Bickford). He's even tatooed with a birthmark to match that of the son, who was kidnapped at five years old.
Choya getting a tattoo on his right shoulder by "Tattoo" (John
Berkes). Leffingwell (Robert Keith) makes sure the design is right.
Choya shows up at the ranch, and by acting the tough but hard-working cynic, he earns a job as a ranch hand and when the moment is right, he lets himself be discovered as missing Richard Lavery. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Choya can't help but be attracted to his new "sister," Ruth (Mona Freeman). Additionally, the sleazy Leffingwell has been revealed to be the kidnapper, having apparently concocted this plot over 25 years earlier and sold the real Richard Lavery to a Mexican jefe, Rubriz (Joseph Calleia). Richard has no recollection of his birth family, and is now living as Tonio Rubriz (Peter Hansen). Of course these dilemmas are all solved in a tidy 104 minutes, but only after an extended chase sequence through the streams, canyons and caves along the border, and nail-biting confrontations and 'come-to-Jesus' moments.
Choya meets Rubriz (Joseph Calleia).
Watching this, it seemed to me that Ladd was comfortable being that tough guy spitting nails at his antagonists, and showing off his strong lithe body wrestling or attempting to break a young colt, while also enjoying being stretched to act in more subtle ways. In the scene in which he watches his new 'mother' (an excellent Selena Royle) get emotional after it dawns on her she's looking at her lost son, his discomfort at his deception is evident in his expression and body language. In the Alan Ladd documentary The Real Quiet Man, co-star Mona Freeman commented on Ladd's sensitivity. "He didn't always realize it himself...he was sensitive, and there was a great gentleness about him."
Does Choya want to go through with his mistaken identity deception?
While overall Ladd isn't allowed to stray too far from his handsome leading man presence, I particularly liked those scenes in which he's sporting facial scruff, been dunked in a river, or dragged through the canyon dust. It's a way he's liberated from the confining image that dogged him much of his career, even while it made him box office gold for many years. It's evident he's having a blast making this film. According to Freeman, he was full of gags and fun on set, relaxed and enjoying himself. He did, however, show tremendous deference to the veteran Charles Bickford, even relentlessly trying to beg off a crucial fisticuffs scene until Paramount execs forced the shoot.
Ladd seems to be double-fisted with the guns in this movie.
Another plus for the film is a strong supporting cast, especially Bickford and Freeman, who has just the right blend of sweetness and spunk. Joseph Calleia hams it up a bit, but I can still buy him as a Mexican bandit chief. Robert Keith is perfection as the scheming, murderous Leffingwell who keeps appearing at all the wrong times determined to get what he wants. Peter Hansen made his film debut here, before becoming a reliable TV star. He and Ladd became good friends making the film, and Ladd cast him in a few of his later pictures he produced for Warner Bros.
Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman) and Choya negotiate their relationship
Unlike other Westerns in which the history and politics of time and place are dominant themes, here the story is a melodrama, and could have easily been adapted for a different setting. What's really being explored here is the process of personal discovery -- and the meaning of family. The film illuminates many angles on this theme without bludgeoning the audience with it. Every character is alone with their struggles, in many ways, and the rugged landscape both reflects and intensifies those struggles. We know that at the film's end when most characters attain a bit of respite and the understanding they're looking for, it's probably only temporary as the next journey of survival is around a future corner.

Don't forget to read more great blog posts about Alan Ladd and his films here!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Capitolfest 2019 - A feast of extremely rare early films

Frances Dee and Joel McCrea
For the fourth time I ventured to Rome, NY for the annual 'Capitolfest' film festival this past weekend. I love it for two main reasons. First, it's a virtually stress-free environment to see friends and bond over a mutual love of old films. Second, the films are so rare and/or have not been seen by the public since they were originally released, watching them makes you feel like you're inhabiting an alternative-reality universe!

Peter McCrea on stage at the
Capitol Theatre Aug 2019
Held at the unique movie palace venue, The Capitol Theatre, this year the festival featured both Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, who were married in real life, and were stars from the early 'talkie' era. Both are appealing, 'girl- or guy-next door types' with enough acting talent to carry many a film. McCrea is probably best known today for his work in Westerns later in his career, or his star turn in Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) from the 1940s. Dee is less well known as she mostly retired from acting in the 1950s to raise their family.

Speaking of family, a highlight of the festival was the personal appearance of Peter McCrea, Joel and Frances' son. He addressed the crowd not once, but twice, and took questions. When he first walked out on stage, I almost fell out of my seat, as he resembles his famous dad so much. He talked about how his parent's shared faith in Christian Science drew them closer and helped them through the rough patches in their marriage. When asked who McCrea's favorite directors were, he mentioned both Sturges and George Stevens. He also shared that his mom was content to let her husband be the star later in their lives, and that McCrea 'relaxed' into familiar Western roles later in his career.

Unlike in previous years where the films from featured stars were both of the silent and 'talkie' variety, this year the only films with either of the two featured stars were talkies from the 1930s and 1940s. Of particular interest to me was The Unseen, starring McCrea, Gail Russell, and Herbert Marshall. By Capitolfest standards this was a recent film, having been made in 1945. As a big fan of Herbert Marshall, I loved watching him on the big screen, and he didn't disappoint. The film itself is a somewhat minor suspense entry, but worth checking out. Gail Russell was one of those talented actors who succumbed at an early age to her demons and the pressures of Hollywood, so it's a thrill to see what little work she left us.

The excellent selection of rare silent shorts and features were screened with expert pipe organ accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, and Avery Tunningley. I was particularly fascinated by the first entry in the series of shorts about the life of President Lincoln (The Son of Democracy/The Lincoln Cycle1917), written by and starring Benjamin Chapin. Chapin was a Lincoln devotee and was inspired to create a series about his life when the U.S. entered WWI. In the first installment, "My Mother", we learn how Lincoln as a boy learned from and was devoted to his mother, who sadly died young. Chapin portrayed Thomas Lincoln, and Charlie Jackson was credited as portraying the boy Abraham and Madelyn Clare portrayed Nancy Hanks Lincoln. All were wonderful in this little gem, and I really want to see the remaining extant episodes in the 10-part series.

Another very different silent was the backstage melodrama Sally, Irene, and Mary (1925with young Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford, and Sally O'Neil. At a crisp 58 minutes, the film transported us to a time when flappers lived the good life but often choices presented in life complicate the happiness of all involved. This film isn't available on DVD, and we saw the print loaned from the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.
Bennett, Crawford, and Hines in Sally, Irene, and Mary
(Photo from

My favorite film of the weekend was the second-to-last one on the program, This Reckless Age. Frances Dee was in this one, along with Charlie Ruggles, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Peggy Shannon, Frances Starr, and Richard Bennett (father of actors Constance and Joan). Directed by Frank Tuttle and with a script by Joseph Mankiewicz (adapted from a play by Lewis Beach), it was released by Paramount in 1932. As a faced-paced family 'dramedy', it portrayed an upper class middle-aged couple wrestling with the irresponsible, selfish behavior of their college-age son and daughter as they come home for Christmas. The film is well-acted and the script is snappy, if easily tagged as having theater origins. All characters were three-dimensional and believeable, and the narrative kept us in suspense with refreshing unpredictability. I felt warmth and affection for nearly all the main characters, although not at the same time(!) While the film was apparently considered a 'B' picture when released, as its stars were no longer at the top of the movie universe, I felt it was a true gem and I wish more people would see it.

It was a blast to see many Turner Classic Movie festival friends this year - it seems that more and more TCM devotees are taking the plunge into Capitolfest, and all seem to have greatly enjoyed it. (Thanks to Aurora (@CitizenScreen) for the group selfies below!)
Toni, me, Aurora, and Alan on Friday when we
were still fairly rested.
Boston TCM Backlot member Kay
and I meet in person
for the first time
TCM gang dinner at the festival's conclusion.

Toni, Beth Ann and I talked about our
experiences running TCM local Backlot chapters over an
al fresco lunch. (Thanks to @NitrateDiva for the photo!)
Next year, Capitolfest will feature both Constance and Joan Bennett. Can't wait!

Friday, July 26, 2019

August Classic Film Offerings in Greater Boston

If you want to get your fill of Howard Hawks films, you won't be disappointed if you live in Greater Boston. Same if you want to revisit 1969. The offerings are plentiful--get out and support your local cinema!
Images from IMDb: Clockwise from upper left:
Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo, The Sting, Woman in the Window
Calendar of Films -- check cinema websites (linked below calendar) for screening times*
Aug 1:          Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969) Coolidge Theatre, Brookline
Aug 2:          El Dorado, (Hawks, 1967), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 3:          Woman in the Moon (Lang, 1929), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 4:          Red River, (Hawks, 1948), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 5:          Laura  (Preminger, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 5:          Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks, 1964), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 6:          The Sting (Hill, 1973), The Strand, Clinton
Aug 8:          Easy Rider, (Hopper, 1969) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 9:          Europe '51 (Rosselini, 1952) & La Strada (Fellini, 1954) double feature Brattle Theatre
Aug 9:          The Big Sky (Hawks, 1952), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 10:        Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 11         Hello, Dolly! (Kelly, 1969) Regal Fenway, AMC Assembly Row, AMC Framingham
Aug 11:        Red River (Hawks, 1948), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 12:        Gentleman Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953)  Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 12:        Sergeant York, (Hawks, 1941), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 13         Phantom Lady (Siodmak, 1944) & Ministry of Fear (Lang, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 14:        Hello, Dolly! (Kelly, 1969) Regal Fenway, AMC Assembly Row, AMC Framingham
Aug 15:        Woodstock, (Wadleigh, 1970) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 16-18    Olivia (D. Aubry, 1951), Brattle Theatre
Aug 16:        Rio Lobo, (Hawks, 1970) & The Road to Glory, (Hawks, 1936), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 17:        A Song is Born, (Hawks, 1948) & O. Henry's Full House (Hawks, 1952), Harvard F.A.
Aug 18:        Come and Get It, (Hawks, 1936) & Barbary Coast, (Hawks, 1935), Harvard F.A.
Aug 19:        Woman in the Window (Lang, 1944) & Mask of Dimitrios (Negulesco, 1944) Brattle
Aug 19:        The Crowd Roars (Hawks, 1932), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 21:        California Split (Altman, 1974), Somerville Theatre
Aug 22:        Medium Cool, (Wexler, 1969) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 23:        The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock, 1956), Brattle Theatre
Aug 23:        Red Line 7000, (Hawks, 1965), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 24:        Calamity Jane (Butler,1953) & Young Man With a Horn (Curtiz, 1950) Brattle Theatre
Aug 25:        Pillow Talk (Gordon, 1959) Brattle Theatre
Aug 26:        The Uninvited (Allen, 1944) & Curse of the Cat People (Fritsch, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 26:        Grease (Kleiser, 1978), The Strand, Clinton
Aug 27:        To Have and To Have Not (Hawks, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 28:        MASH (Altman, 1970), Somerville Theatre
Aug 30:        Monkey Business (Hawks, 1952) & His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) Harvard F.A.
Aug 31-Sept 1: All night movie marathon at HFA. Films with themes of 'danger on the high seas!'

September 23rd sneak peek: Underworld (von Sternberg, 1927) at Coolidge with Alloy Orchestra!!

*Disclaimer: With lists like these it is difficult to be 100% comprehensive! Please forgive any omissions.

Cinema Websites:
Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA
Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA
Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA
Somerville Theatre, Somerville MA
Strand Theatre, Clinton MA

Monday, June 17, 2019

A musician's perspective on recording and performing film scores: from City Lights to Star Wars

David Creswell, professional violist
As part of my self-education about classic film, I've decided to do explore film music in some depth. For my first blog post on this subject I was delighted to speak to a seasoned musician about his extensive experience in recording and performing film scores.

David Creswell is a violist in New York City, has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Broadway shows, is principal violist of the Greenwich (CT) Symphony, and has recorded >100 film scores* since moving to NYC in 1997. He also happens to be my brother-in-law. 

JD: As a musician, what is the process to get a gig to record a film score? 

DC:  Composers typically have control over who they hire to record scores, although sometimes studios have a say also. Composers have relationships with various musicians and groups in town (NYC) whose sound and aesthetic they like. Composers have a distinctive voice, and producers and directors use different composers to fit their own voice. Some composers are really dramatic, others are more subtle and cerebral. Composers work with contractors who actually do the hiring – I have several contractors that I work for. Contractors also have different vibes and working styles and the music you get out of that is very different. Specific composers like specific vibes that work for their music and their process of recording the score.  

JD: Who are your film composer idols?
DC:  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to name one, but really all from Korngold’s era, including Copland and Shostakovich. They were great because they were first and foremost serious concert composers. They had learned from earlier musical masters such as Mahler, Strauss, and Nadia Boulanger. Their goal was to be the next Beethoven, Strauss, etc, and their music is complex and rich. Korngold left Europe because of WWII, but he and many of his fellow emigres found a place in Hollywood where they poured their dense creative musical energy into film scoring. It’s a shame that we’ve lost that today to a degree.  I understand directors not wanting the music to distract from their story, but I really love when the music is more of a forward character in the film experience like it was then.

JD: What trends have you observed in film scoring during the 20+ years of your experience? 

DCFirst, the economics of recording film scores have changed a lot in the past 20 years. One of the biggest changes is that many scores are now recorded in Eastern Europe as opposed to NY and LA because orchestras there are less expensive and residuals aren't paid. (In NYC and LA musicians get residuals--shares from how much the movie sells afterwards). And today, there is only one big space left in NY for large orchestras to score: the Manhattan Center ballroom. When working with composers in Europe, producers and composers can fly over with equipment to record with less expensive orchestras. They can even work remotely with an orchestra in Europe, for example, live using web sharing technology!  

Another trend relates to the aesthetics of the music itself--what sound the filmmakers want. Tastes have changed since 1997. Today, scores have a less symphonic identity and are charged to create color and mood that is generated by symphonic instruments but with less motivic influences. It's less melodic, and the overall structures of the music are smaller. These sounds are mixed in with newer genres (e.g. hip hop). Sometimes the playing for these types of less melodic scores requires no vibrato, or is consistently mezzo-piano, and can be sleep-inducing for the musicians because of the often very slow, unexpressive takes. 

A refreshing contrast comes to mind--I performed on the recording of Rachel Portman's score for the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber, directed by Jonathan Demme). The score was a mix of genres, but I recall when we recorded the beginning of the nominating convention; this scene had two minutes of incredibly loud, patriotic music--a great contrast to typical moody delicate music. We were told to blast the hell out of it – that was fun. 

And technology has advanced so much – now you can mix things together using computers, after recording groups of instruments in a more piecemeal manner. Leeway still exists in remixing and changing – that is why scores are often recorded with less vibrato playing--phrase shapes can be manipulated more easily in post-production. Today there are even people out there trying to invent ways of synthesizing an entire score without benefit of musicians!  But thankfully nothing matches the human feeling of live musicians playing.

JD: One of my favorite scores is that of Miklós Rózsa for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). It came to mind when you mentioned rich and complex film music. (proceeds to play a clip from the film's opening credits; the film music suite is linked in the YouTube clip below).
DC: Hmm... Rózsa was really great. Listening, I hear influences of Richard Strauss and Wagner. Rózsa and his contemporaries imitated music that they loved from their childhood. These composers often used motifs representing characters or themes throughout their movies, a technique that was developed and used extensively by Richard Wagner.

JD: It seems that there is an increasing trend to play scores live with film screenings for an audience, in a concert venue.

DC: Yes. About 15-20 years ago we did some concerts that presented parts or scenes of a film, but not the entire film. I remember doing a concert showcasing the great age of Korngold, which included scenes from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). This format worked because composers then tended to write “a piece” for a scene – one segment that could stand on its own. 

David Creswell's viola, in close-up
It's gotten very popular over the last 10 years to screen entire films with live orchestra. This is sort of a cottage industry now and these concerts sell very well. I've done several with the NY Philharmonic and some with other local orchestras. One year with the Philharmonic we played all of the Star Wars movies in a two-week period. That was really fun. Once I played for screenings of Manhattan—that one was kind of boring for the orchestra because there wasn’t a lot of music in it. The trick was to stay awake and not fall over asleep on stage and miss a musical cue! Babe was a complicated score (by Nigel Westlake) because it was based on an organ symphony by Edward Elgar – real music!  Another very fun one was playing for a program of Warner Brothers cartoons!

One of the most significant experiences I had doing this was when the NY Philharmonic played live to West Side StoryIn fact, it was the NY Phil that had recorded the film score in 1961, with composer Leonard Bernstein at the helm; there were friends of mine playing with me for this recent performance who were there in the orchestra when the score was recorded originally!

JD: What do you think makes these screenings with live music so popular?
DC: First, I think the sound is better with live instruments--the richness and complexity of the sound come out more when you’re in the room with the performer – and also, art is being created in the moment. Your experience of the movie is richer due to your emotions being heightened with the experience of live music. And, the audience loves it.  People showed up in costume to the NY Philharmonic's performance of the Star Wars films. When they did Babe, people brought their kids.

JD: What are some challenges for a musician performing a score live to film?

 It's a challenge to get the sound balance right--you're in a concert hall but you're playing with a film that already has certain sound balances, and the sound and actors' voices reflect the rooms that the actors are in. In movie theaters, the acoustic space is usually dead. They compensate by playing it really loud through speakers in the theatre to create the needed ambiance. But you can’t do that in the concert hall.

JD: I especially love attending screenings of silent films with newly-composed scores performed live. Have you had experience playing for any silent films?
The Outlaw and His Wife - Victor Sjöström & Edith Erastoff
DC: I once had a project with composer Stephen Endelman -- he wrote a new score for a Swedish silent film from 1918: The Outlaw and His Wife (directed by and starring legendary Victor SjöströmBerg-Ejvind och hans hustru in the original Swedish). Endelman wrote a chamber ensemble score, and we performed it in small, intimate venues in NYC like The Knitting Factory, with small groups of about 50 people attending screenings. I also got to perform Chaplin's City Lights in concert with the NY Philharmonic in Shanghai as well as New York City--it was very interesting to perform it for a Chinese audience, because different parts of the film, as well as the music, resonate with audiences from different cultures.

JD: What is different when playing for silent films vs. sound films?

DC: Playing live to silent films is freeing because you don't worry about drowning out dialogue or sound effects. Playing for a silent film you're free to use the entire range of your creativity with the sound that you’re making. 

JC: Thank you, I learned so much!

You're very welcome!

*An abbreviated list of film scores David has recorded: Across the Universe 2007, The Alamo 2003, The Brave One 2007, The Departed 2006, Failure to Launch 2006, The Good Shepherd 2006, The Heffalump Movie 2005, Hitch 2005, Intolerable Cruelty 2003, Julie & Julia 2009, Keeping up with the Jonses 2016, The Ladykillers 2004, The Last Mimzy 2007, Maggie’s Plan 2015, Manchurian Candidate 2004, Meet the Robinsons 2007, Noah 2014, Perfect Stranger 2007, The Rookie 2001, Striptease 1996, A Time to Kill 1996, Tower Heist 2011, True Grit 2010, The Truth About Charlie 2002, Two Weeks Notice 2002, You Don’t Know Jack 2010.