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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.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Five Favorite films from the Fabulous Fifties!

The 1950s was a fertile decade in Hollywood--despite the blacklist and anti-Communist hysteria--with pictures made to wow audiences to lure them away from their TV sets and back into cinemas. Some movies seemed to underscore the dominant image of a cohesive American family, while others exposed the deep troubles beneath. Societal troubles were often thematic in the best French and Italian films of the decade as well.

In honor of National Classic Movie Day, I'm delighted to share five 1950s films I recommend be on the watchlist of any film fan. I've decided to include one film from each of five genres: Western, the musical, film noir, melodrama, and suspense. Check out all the posts compiled by Rick at the Classic Film & TV Cafe, and create your own personal 1950s watch list!

Western: 3:10 to Yuma (D. Delmer Daves, 1957)
Here's a gripping character-driven Western playing out a tense drama between two flawed men: Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford); the latter is a charming outlaw on the run from a stagecoach hold-up and murder who gets caught and is given to Dan to escort him to the titular train to Yuma (site of the state prison) over a few hours. It's not a particularly realistic or overly violent Western (those would become more the fashion in the 1960s). And it's not meant to be. Instead it's a piece of visual and storytelling art that imbues every stylized scene with tension. The high-contrast black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. is stunning. As the plot revolves around a drought in Arizona, you'll want to have a tall glass of water nearby as you watch, as the dry harsh beauty of the landscape is almost overwhelming.

I love that the characters (at least the main male ones) are three dimensional and underplayed. Glenn Ford apparently was cast originally as Dan Evans, but requested to take on the role of the villain here, and what a great choice. The economy of the script forces all the actors to do much with face and body to convey the struggles of will they face during the running time. The ending is so much more cathartic and satisfying as a result.
I love the composition of this shot.

This film also has that special something, which for me is the score. The song '3:10 to Yuma' is sung by Frankie Laine over the title credits, and the haunting theme repeats during the film in various arrangements--my favorite is the guitar, flute and violin trio.

If you've seen the 2007 remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, expect a similar story, but resist the comparisons. The later film is a much more realistic Western and the vibe is different. Watch the original for a compelling cinema experience on its own.

Noir: Angel Face (D. Otto Preminger, 1953)
Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup in Angel Face
It's a noir and it stars Robert Mitchum. Sold yet? He's the chump taken in by Jean Simmons' rich spoiled girl Diane Tremayne, who ratches up the concept of the 'femme fatale' several orders of magnitude. Her face is angelic but her soul is anything but. ('Kathy' in Out of the Past could take lessons in evil from Diane.) A dominant theme here is that all is not well in the great American family of the 1950s.

Diane turns on the charm to lure Frank Jessup (Mitchum), an ambulance driver, to ditch his earnest girlfriend (Mona Freeman) for her, and the problems (and body count) begin to mount.  It's a terrific thriller, as all along we think that Mitchum is somehow going to escape her clutches, but he keeps getting drawn back in. Mitchum is mesmerizing as usual, and Jean Simmons, the talented English actress who was still early in her career with roles such as Ophelia under her belt, commits fully to her psychopathic character. Herbert Marshall, a favorite of mine, is delightful as her deluded, indulgent father. By the end of this part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, you may never want to get into a convertible again.
Jean Simmons surveying the scene of the future crime(s).

Cary Grant being driven along the Riviera by
Grace Kelly
Suspense: To Catch a Thief (D. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955).
I'll admit that I watched this one for the first time ever last month. It's not the most acclaimed Hitchcock, and having been left cold by some of Grace Kelly's other performances, I had put off watching it. But it was free on Amazon Prime, and I decided to give it a whirl. And I loved it. It's not your typical Hitchcock film in that it's not scary in the slightest, and any minor suspenseful scenes hardly quicken the pulse. But it's a romp and a romantic fantasy that sweeps you away.
In case the color wasn't bright enough, a key
scene takes place in a flower market.
Former jewel thief/cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) has gone straight and is enjoying life in Southern France; due to a rash of thefts, he's pressured into cooperating with the local authorities to set a trap for the yet unknown serial burglar. Along the way he must work with visiting wealthy American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful but aloof daughter Frances (Kelly). The action hops along Hitchcock style with literal and figurative twists and turns until the puzzles are solved.

Arguably the best thing about the film was its location setting - the gorgeous coast of Southern France, in complete bloom with flowers everywhere. I don't think there is another film that can come close to being as colorful. And Grace Kelly seems to be at home in the locale--perhaps that is why I enjoy her so much here. (As everyone knows, she was soon to take up residence as the new Princess of Monaco the year after this film was released.). Just look at some more fabulous images:

Musical: Singin' in the Rain (D. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1953)

I was hoping to find a lesser-known musical to highlight here. But because I'm not a huge fan of musicals, even though I've enjoyed many during this decade, none did I enjoy nearly as much as this one. There's a reason that it tops the American Film Institute's best musical film of all time. So if you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? With Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagan, it's colorful, rollicking, hysterically funny...and those songs! The story revolves around a silent film star (Kelly) who must find a way to succeed during the conversion to sound films. Hollywood is thoroughly enjoying spoofing itself here while celebrating the wonder of a good movie.

Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 Oscar winner The Artist owes much in plot and characterization to this film. Yet I hope that no one ever attempts to remake this fabulous Hollywood love letter to the best of itself. Check out one of my favorite musical numbers "Good Mornin" with all three stars:

Melodrama: The Earrings of Madame De... (D. Max Ophuls,1953)
It's a French film by acclaimed director Max Ophuls, and like many French films of the era, it's filled with ambiguity in character and motivation, but it's so tightly drawn and elegant. I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive last year and I've not been able to get it out of my mind since. The lead character, whose full name is never revealed, is portrayed by stunning Danielle Darrieux. She's partially content with her Parisian life at the end of the 19th century with wealthy husband Charles Boyer, but is rather bored and is seeking other company. When Boyer gifts her an exquisite pair of diamond earrings, they become a pawn multiple times in a series of deceits aimed to help conceal her infidelities.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the film is “one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed. It glitters and dazzles, and beneath the artifice it creates a heart, and breaks it.” Perhaps it's the 'manneredness' of the film that makes it such a pleasure for me. The camera is almost like a character the way it glides around the others in a film - as a viewer it's like being in a waltz with everyone on screen, even if the music grows continually darker and is played in a minor key.

I also particularly enjoyed Vittorio de Sica, the famed director who was also an actor, and just a year removed from his successful and acclaimed Bicycle Thieves, he is so charismatic here as one of Madame's lovers. 
Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux
So break out a bottle of Burgundy, dip into some fois gras, and treat yourself to the best of 1950's French filmmaking. And while you're indulging visit the Classic Film & TV Cafe for more great Fifties films.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lana Turner--femme fatale (?) in JOHNNY EAGER (1942)

In this noir, beautiful blond Lana Turner completely bewitches her handsome co-star and sets in motion a series of decisions that ultimately lead to his demise. No, it's not The Postman Always Rings Twice. In that film, she takes her place among the most recognized femmes fatale, including Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Here, we're discussing what was perhaps for Turner a warm-up for that one--Johnny Eager (1942), in which it's Robert Taylor who falls prey to her charms. 

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon about femmes and hommes fatale in film noir. Click the image to see all the terrific posts over the past few days.

"The town's full of women and I have to pick the most dangerous one in town." 
-- Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager.

So I'll be clear up front: in Johnny Eager, Lana Turner's character is not a true femme fatale. Yet, with the seductive way she goes about her business for the first half of the film we really not sure of her motives; that and the deadly plot spiral in the final act, make her part a juicy one to dissect. (Warning: spoilers below.)

Lana Turner and director Mervyn LeRoy
on the set of Johnny Eager
According to Robert Osborne, the beloved late host of Turner Classic Movies, this film, from a short story and screenplay by James Edward Grant, was a departure for MGM, the 'cadillac studio' that rarely made movies about the criminal element. They had a star in Robert Taylor, but decided that in order for his films to attract male fans, they needed to rough up his image and cast him as a gangster! (Just a year earlier 20th Century Fox successfully employed that strategy with Tyrone Power in the similarly named Johnny Apollo.) Twenty-year-old rising star Turner was cast opposite Taylor and was seen by MGM as their female sex symbol since Jean Harlow. While this minor noir is not as well known today, Johnny Eager made over $1 million in profit when it was released.

Robert Taylor in a publicity
photo from the 1930s
Turner was only four years removed from her first significant role, in They Won't Forget (1937), where her discovery by director Mervyn LeRoy was rewarded when he showcased her enticing blend of sexiness and innocence, and she was dubbed 'the sweater girl'. The film was aptly named, as audiences did not forget Turner, who was in a steep rise to stardom. Versatile LeRoy had a hit with the gangster classic Little Caesar (1931), and success with Turner in the earlier film--her comfort level with him made him a good fit for Johnny Eager. To promote the film MGM created an evocative shorthand for their star pairing of Taylor and Turner -- TNT--and indeed sparks flew between them both on and off the set. (For a detailed description of their pairing in this film, see my fellow CMBA blogger Aurora's post here.)

While Turner heats up the screen in her scenes, the film spends more time with the title character. Taylor is serviceable in his role as the titular big city boss and racketeer, as ruthless and hard-hearted as he is handsome. He's recently out of jail on parole and while appearing to go straight, finds ways to keep his crime organization active and has even greater ambitions to profit from a dog racing track operation. Getting in his way is the district attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), who is one of a few not taken in by Taylor's cover as a suave mustachioed cab driver(!) Also serving as minor nuisances are his girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane) and his alcoholic right-hand man, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin in his first and only Oscar-winning role).

Things get significantly more complicated when Lisbeth Bard (Turner) turns up. We first see her early in the film when she's at court at the same time that Taylor is meeting his parole officer Verne (Henry O'Neill), and she takes note of the handsome stranger. Though the aforementioned officer refers to her and her friend (Diana Lewis) as 'sociology students', Turner projects a more mature and glamorous persona. And her look after seeing Taylor signals to us she has more than studies on her mind. She questions Verne about Johnny, and her comment "he looks to have more ambition than just driving a cab" makes us wonder if the criminal in him is enticing to her. In fact, the more she hears about his past, the more interested she looks. In this first scene, she seems like a good candidate for femme fatale, the concept that is neatly summed up by Foster Hirsch in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen: these women are "malevolent temptresses, their power confined almost entirely to a sexual realm, their strength achieved only at the expense of men."
Lisbeth Bard contemplating Johnny's criminal record
Lisbeth's pursuit of Johnny begins in earnest when she shows up to his 'home' along with his parole officer with 'field work' as her rationale. Their mutual attraction is evident...and the camera is also smitten.

Lisbeth and Johnny check each other out
Once Lisbeth Bard's young beau turns up at a party, we think she may be an innocent student after all, infatuated with Johnny's good looks and potentially dangerous persona. But then she mysteriously appears in the office of a restaurant manager whom Johnny starts to shake down before noticing her presence. She's unfazed, and begins to come on strong, dropping any pretense of naivete: "You don't want me talking about this (incident) to Mr. Verne--he might think you've been lying to him." She then moves in on him, strokes his suit jacket lapels, and with a hardened jaw says "Don't lie to me Mr. Eager--I have no intention of reporting you." When she gets in his car, she suggestively says to him, "No, I don't want you to take me home", and their first clinch follows. When eventually they do arrive at her home, Johnny is unpleasantly surprised to meet her stepfather - the D.A. John Benson Farrell (Arnold).

Lisbeth, the 'killer'
A short time later, Eager is attempting to make room in his life for Lisbeth--he promptly dismisses his girlfriend while openly defying the two-faced Farrell's threats and bribes to stay away from his daughter. But, lest we think that Lisbeth, in femme fatale fashion, will break Johnny's heart to her own ends, almost the exact opposite happens. Johnny sees an opportunity to use Lisbeth for profit. He sets up a staged scene (which isn't revealed as being staged until after it's complete) where he goads Lisbeth into shooting his underling Julio (Paul Stewart) after he appears to threaten Johnny's life. We later learn his goal is to blackmail Farrell into agreeing to permit his dog racing track. Horrified by believing she killed Julio, Lisbeth promptly retreats into a catatonic, pitiful state for several days. We understand now that she is a victim like most other humans Johnny's life touches.

For the time being, Johnny goes back to his usual mob boss shenanigans, getting what he wants from Farrell and outsmarting most everyone else he meets. After a few days he's convinced to visit the distraught Lisbeth, only after prompting by her ex-beau, and shows some compassion at her condition. When she proves herself willing to sacrifice her freedom for him, he professes his love for her and admits he framed her. His subsequent unselfish and risky decisions then lead to his demise, and the picture ends with him dying in the street in the arms of his friend Hartnett.
Johnny's final confrontation looks as noir as they come

Lisbeth breaks down as Johnny confesses his love
So, if Lisbeth is not a femme fatale, what is she, really? Lana Turner is too glamorous to convince us she is a naive student. (Ironically, when this film was released, the 'femme fatale' wasn't yet a thing, at least in the noir genre, since it was so new. Audiences would not have come into the film with the same expectations as modern audiences looking back.) We wonder what her history with other men has been, despite the desire of her father. It may be her father is over-protective, influencing her to follow danger, take great risks even and get herself in over her head. Turner is perfect at letting slip that vulnerability that just might be part of her irresistibility to Johnny. Her breakdown near the end is truly heartbreaking.

When Lisbeth proves to be as self-sacrificing as Johnny is selfish, promising to turn herself into the police only after Johnny's no longer in danger as an accessory, she breaks the wall of ice around Johnny's heart. When she redeems him, his doing the right thing causes his death - so, literally, she is as dangerous to him had she been a nefarious character. If Lisbeth's not a true femme fatale, for Johnny, the end result is the same.

Sources consulted:
Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner, E.P. Dutton, Inc, 1982.
Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, by Mervyn LeRoy and Dick Kleiner, Hawthorn Books, Inc, 1974
Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, by Cheryl Crane (Turner's daughter) with Cindy De La Hoz, Running Press, 2008.
The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, by Foster Hirsch, A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc., 1981.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Planning my schedule--sort of--at the 10th Annual TCM Film Festival

Well, it's that time again and the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival will explode in Hollywood bigger than ever in under two weeks now. (It's the 10th anniversary of the Festival and the 25th anniversary of the TV channel, and all passes have sold out for the first time.) While I'm excited to be attending, I so far haven't succeeded in building my complete schedule ahead of time, because with up to five different films showing in every time slot, and great guests appearing, my decision-making abilities have vanished--I need help, people!

In any case, I've captured my thoughts here as my festival planning is still very much a work in progress. Perhaps it's good not to get too committed, as it's inevitable that things change at the last minute. So, here goes:

Thursday, April 11
So for opening night, I can eliminate a few films pretty quickly: When Harry Met Sally (1989) (only for higher-level passholders), Dark Passage (1947), (seen it recently), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) (seen it recently on the big screen), Mogambo (1953) (sorry, no interest). The remaining films are all up for grabs.

Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell
Option 1: I'll admit my first instinct was to head to the Egyptian Theater for Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) because it would certainly be fun to get the festival started with a rousing, fun musical with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell--that, plus I've not seen the entire thing. If I did that, I could stick around and see another fun film, or at least I believe it's fun as I haven't watched the entire thing ever -- The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and an adolescent Shirley Temple star).

Option 2: I'm also tempted to hang out by the pool for the outdoor screening of Ocean's 11 (1960). Angie Dickinson will be there, and outdoor screenings are usually a blast -- unless it's uncomfortably cold. In which case, it's best to be inside a warm cinema. This one ends late, so if I choose it, there will be no time to get to any other.

Gary Cooper as Sergeant York
Option 3: Sergeant York (1941) is screening at the Legion Theater (a new venue for the festival) and here's another Gary Cooper classic I haven't seen. In addition, members of the York family will be there to provide perspective to film-goers. What an amazing opportunity! If I choose this one, though, the timing is such that it will be my only film for the evening.

Friday, April 12
Morning Schedule: The first film of the day was an easy one for me: Merrily We Go To Hell (1932): it's a pre-code and who can resist a title like that? Fredric March plays a drunk and I'll be interested to see how it compares to his Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1937). After that, I may do something I've never done before: go to the Grauman's Chinese Hand & Footprint Ceremony for Billy Crystal, one of my favorite entertainers who so deserves this honor. For the second slot of the morning, my inner film geek will likely take over as I head over to the Legion Theater for What's Not To Love About Republic Serials? which promises film clips showcasing behind the scenes of the low-budget sci-fi/action short films from Republic pictures.

Afternoon schedule:  For the early slot, for me it's a choice between My Favorite Wife (1940),  (another Cary Grant classic) and the seminal silent film Sunrise (1927). I absolutely LOVE Sunrise, and it was one of the films that awakened my classic film obsession. However, my first view of this one was on the big screen with a new score performed live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, so this screening wouldn't be a novelty for me. My Favorite Wife is a film new to me, and Jennifer Grant, Cary's daughter will be on hand to share her insights about her famous dad. It's a tough choice. Also, tugging at me will be the Hollywood Black Backlot meetup at 3:30, with a chance to meet author and film historian Donald Bogle, and get a free copy of his book.

Evening Schedule: For the later afternoon/early evening slot, I'm tempted to hang out near the Chinese cinema #6 for Vanity Street (1932) and Open Secret (1948). These are low-budget "discoveries" and are new to me. The former stars one of my favorites, Charles Bickford, in a rare leading man part. I'd be tempted to attend Steel Magnolias (1989) with the original playwright, Robert Harling, and star Shirley MacLaine in attendance (Wow!). The only thing is, this film will come to a local cinema later this year as part of the TCM/Fathom Big Screen Classics Series, and I will no doubt catch it then with our newly-minted TCM Boston Backlot chapter. The final and best option for me may be to head to Day For Night, a 1973 Truffaut film starring Jacqueline Bisset, with Ms. Bisset in attendance to offer her thoughts. I've not even heard of this one, (!) so a pleasant surprise may be in store for me here.

Late evening: Here it's a toss up between Road House (1948) and Winchester '73 (1950). The former, a film noir starring Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino, has been on my watch list for a while. And, it'll be shown in gorgeous black-and-white on nitrate. If I'm in a Western sort of mood, I'll head over to the Jimmy Stewart classic, to check another one off my watch list. And oh by the way, no midnight movie for me -- just can't do it!

Saturday, April 13
Barbara Rush in
When Worlds Collide
Morning schedule: It doesn't get much easier on Saturday. My first choice will be between All Through the Night, a comedy-thriller starring Humphrey Bogart from 1942, and When Worlds Collide (1951), a sci-fi "discovery" in which star Barbara Rush will be at the screening. The morning's dark horse is The Little Colonel (1935), a classic Shirley Temple film. Since I've not seen any of her films from her golden age--childhood that is--this is an opportunity to rectify that. For the second slot, I'm pretty much decided to see the classic British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949); it's new to me, plus young Alec Guinness, people!

Afternoon Schedule: For the early slot, I'm tempted by A Raisin In the Sun (1961), which is universally acclaimed and stars the great Sidney Poitier. Alternatively, there is a double feature starring silent cowboy star Tom Mix -- with live piano accompaniment from Ben Model. I could be very happy there! For the second slot, it will come down to one of these two: 1) Nashville (1975) -- this one is considered a Robert Altman classic and I've yet to see it. And as far as special guests--there is huge list for this one, including Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and (gulp!) Lily Tomlin! 2) The other option is It Happened Here (1964) a documentary-styled war drama from film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow. Mr. Brownlow will be there also to receive the 2nd annual Robert Osborne Award, and I would love to see him be honored that way.
Acclaimed Western star of the
early cinema, Tom Mix
Late evening Schedule:  If there is time after Nashville lets out, I'll plan Indiscreet (1958) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's directed by recently-deceased Stanley Donen. If I've decided I've had my fill of Cary Grant already, (I know, right?!) If I don't make it to that and still feel like continuing my film-watching, I'll probably go for Samson & Delilah (1949), shown in nitrate with Victoria Mature, daughter of star Victor Mature, there for the screening. Hmm...on second thought...maybe that should be my #1 selection!

Sunday, April 15
Morning Schedule: The last day of the festival is always bittersweet, but still full. There is also the issue of all the 'TBA' slots -- these get announced the day before when festival planners assess how many popular films from earlier in the weekend had to turn away attendees, and thus deserve another shot on the big screen. Assuming none of the TBAs is a huge draw for me, the day still starts out with a really difficult choice: Mad Love (1935), Peter Lorre's first U.S. film, The Defiant Ones (1958), which earned Sidney Poitier his first Oscar nod, or Holiday (1938), the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn romp? I've not seen any of them, and all will be great, so...dear reader, any suggestions?? It may all depend on how many of these stars' other films I've seen so far at the festival.

After this, I'll likely take a little break before the TCM Backlot Members' Meetup starting at 1:30. Since our Boston chapter just formed, with yours truly as co-chair, I want to meet other members and get ideas from established chapters.

Evening Schedule: Before the closing night party, I'll need to make at least one more choice for a late afternoon/early evening film. I expect I'll be strongly tempted by The Dolly Sisters (1945) starring Betty Grable and June Haver. It's a technicolor musical to be screened on nitrate, so I expect it'll be a fun way to close out the festival. No epics (Gone with the Wind, Godfather II) for me!

And that will be a wrap, folks! I'd love to hear your thoughts. The full schedule can be found here. Check back for my summary of my actual experiences!

Monday, February 25, 2019

'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir' book review & author Q&A

He was the guy who frantically sought his own killer in D.O.A. (1949), the film publicity executive who sweat profusely in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the romantic poet Gringoire, who befriended Maureen O'Hara's Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

I don't remember the first film I saw him in, but after watching his understated brilliance opposite James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Edmond O'Brien (1915-1985) rose quite high on my list of actors I just had to see more of. Luckily, coinciding with my watching more of his films was the publication of a complete study of his career and life, called 'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir'. The bio was written by Derek Sculthorpe and published by McFarland Press last year. I was pleased to be asked by McFarland to review the O'Brien book, and after I finished it, I contacted Sculthorpe to get more of his insights into O'Brien's unique experience in Hollywood, including dealing with a series of disruptive medical issues.

Sculthorpe states his objective is to "shine a light on his overlooked contribution to film and the art of acting." In this, Sculthorpe succeeded, as he dug deep into every film O'Brien made (and several he didn't) and shared the insights he gained for each one, in approximate chronological order. While the book focuses on the noir films made during O'Brien's most fertile period, it really covers his entire career, including glimpses into his stage, radio and TV performances, and his forays into directing (e.g. Shield for Murder, 1954) and producing. The book content is largely factual, and the extensive list of sources and complete credits attests to the depth of the research and credibility of the information. Of course, Sculthorpe injects his opinions of O'Brien's work which never stray too far to one side or the other, allowing the reader validation of their own opinions. Within the long stretches of movie capsules, Sculthorpe keeps your interest by inserting behind-the-scenes stories for each movie when applicable. There is also information about O'Brien's family heritage and early life as reported in government records and press sources during his career. I was surprised to learn that his older brother Liam was a screenwriter of some distinction with whom O'Brien collaborated whenever possible. Overall, the book presents a comprehensive picture of  O'Brien's career that would be of interest to any classic film enthusiast.

In many ways, O'Brien's career arc was similar to other character actors of the golden age, in that his versatility allowed him to work into his old age (he is brilliant, although almost unrecognizable, in the seminal Western The Wild Bunch (1969). He had a particular love of Shakespeare, and even worked on the stage as Marc Antony in an Orson Welles' production of Julius Caesar. In the star-studded 1953 film version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, his turn as murderous Casca garnered great reviews at the time. (Note to self: I need to see this one!).
O'Brien and Deanna Durbin were paired in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943);
definitely not film noir (photo from
While many actors of the golden era struggled with drug or alcohol addiction, O'Brien had a series of medical issues that could have derailed his career at any time. I was surprised to learn especially that O'Brien dealt with poor eyesight throughout his career, at times so severe that he required considerable assistance to move around on set or learn his lines. The eye problems dated to an accident during his active duty in WWII, and required many surgeries over the years. He also suffered heart attacks, and from his mid-life on, the effects of Alzheimers. Sculthorpe plumbed the records to uncover how these challenges impacted O'Brien, and what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, with help, was determined to give the best performance he could, and collaborators who helped make that possible. Even when severely compromised, he pulled it together on set, as in his small role in Orson Welles' last film The Other Side of the Wind, produced in 1970.

Q&A with author Derek Sculthorpe
Q: It seems O’Brien identified strongly with his Irish heritage (and obviously kept his last name such that his background was known) – can you comment on how his culture informed how he portrayed or adapted himself to his characters, if at all?

Sculthorpe: His Irish heritage was definitely important to him and informed his work, but I am not sure it was so evident as it was with others such as Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Edmond was frequently cast as a cop of course, but never as a priest, although he almost played one in the Pendergast story (a film called The Kansas City Story about corrupt senator Tom Pendergast) that was never made. He mostly portrayed Irish American characters, but there was a universal truth in his work that transcended all borders. 
O'Brien as undercover detective befriending unstable mob
boss James Cagney in the gangster noir White Heat
Q: Considering the broader culture at the time was not particularly advanced in supporting people with disabilities, was O’Brien an exception in how he was treated or typical of those in the business who found themselves with such struggles?

Sculthorpe: Certainly people with disabilities of any kind seemed to be invisible in that era. My guess is that he tried to hide or get around them somehow. By the time his eye trouble became apparent he was well-established and maybe they made allowances. Perhaps his heart trouble led to him losing more roles, but then again he wanted to keep working and he was still in demand. I wonder about the studio insurance in those days, but often health and safety did not seem to come into it. The actors and stuntmen did things then that I am sure wouldn't happen now. When you think of some of the alarming situations he endured while working on The Last Voyage for instance (blogger note: working in neck-high water with electrical hazards all around). Later, when he began to be afflicted by Alzheimers, it was not a disease that was understood at all. His co-workers just thought he was drunk, as they did with poor Rita Hayworth. Edmond was not diagnosed until long afterwards of course. Even at the end of his career with Black Sunday, the director was fully prepared to go out of his way to accommodate him even though he realised there would be times when he went blank and there might be lots of delays. In the event of course O’Brien wasn’t able to go through with it. But that’s a great testament to his ability and to the high regard in which directors and producers held him. 

Edmond O'Brien in his first film role The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
 and one of his last 
The Wild Bunch (1969).

Q: It was interesting to me that so many greater stars and/or show business people with broad influence had such great regard for O’Brien’s abilities. Why do you think he didn’t become a bigger star? Did you get a sense he regretted not rising to the ‘A’ ranks?

Sculthorpe: It’s an interesting question. He said he was satisfied as a supporting actor because he got the more interesting roles. However, in his early career I feel that he wanted to be a star. He was concerned about billing and status. The turning point was the Oscar. I think that meant everything to him, to have the approval of his peers. He seemed to relax after that in a sense, and by then he was becoming more and more a character actor anyway. Personally, I think it’s a shame he didn’t get more chances in Shakespeare, because he clearly loved that and seemed to come to life in his works.

Thank you to Derek Sculthorpe for the insights.

Read my review of the Western Warpath, with Edmond O'Brien in the leading role, here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Another silent gem making the rounds - The Ancient Law screens here

About a year ago I gave up writing monthly previews of classic films screening in Greater Boston, because, well, we have an abundance here, and most local cinephiles know the usual places to check out. Sometimes a film gets a public screening completely under the radar of general audiences, which certainly was the case with E.A. Dupont's 1923 feature The Ancient LawIt screened with live musical accompaniment at Boston's Temple Israel on January 16th, sponsored jointly by Boston Jewish Film and Jewish Arts Collaborative. The film has been making the rounds at various film festivals, notably the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, since it was restored in 2017 by the Deutsch Kinematek.

E.A. Dupont is probably best-known today for Varieté (1925) starring Emil Jannings, and Piccadilly (1929) starring Anna May Wong (I've been fortunate to see both films screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in recent years). A prominent director in Weimer era Germany, and also a Jew, Dupont fled Nazism for Hollywood in 1933, but was not particularly successful there, working off and on until his death in 1956. It's somewhat ironic, then, that a cinematic telling of a story similar to The Ancient Law (in the original German, Das Alte Gesetz) became such a sensation in Hollywood and beyond just a few years later, forever changing how we experience movies. That one, of course, is The Jazz Singer (d. Alan Crosland, 1927).

Ernst Deutch as Baruch and Avrom Moreski as his rabbi
father in a scene from The Ancient Law
The screenplay for The Ancient Law was written by Paul Reno, inspired by a true story of Jewish actor Bogumil Dawison who broke into Vienna's Burgtheater in the mid-1800s. The theater impresario was Heinrich Laube, who was portrayed as himself in the film by actor Hermann Vallentin. In the film, the young man, named Baruch, struggles with his ambition to become a stage actor against his orthodox Jewish tradition and the fierce opposition of his rabbi father. The narrative proceeds as you may think, but takes its time, with a lot of detail in the early scenes of small-town Jewish life in 19th century Eastern Europe contributing to the longish 2 hours 8 minutes running time. The filmmakers took care of every detail in the sets and costumes, enhanced greatly by the restoration of course, making the audience feel like we were traveling with Baruch from his Jewish shtetl to the grandeur of royal Vienna.

I was fortunate to attend a pre-screening reception to meet Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin, the two musicians who jointly composed a new score for keyboard and violin, and have been performing it with the film as it tours. Sosin is an experienced, well-traveled silent film composer and performer, while Svigals, a prominent specialist in klezmer music, has just recently entered the world of composing for and accompanying a silent film. She shared with us that at first she was hesitant to get into the genre, but quickly gained her footing, aided of course by film veteran Sosin.

Their performance was masterful, as the duo cleverly wove scored music with improvisation. The blending of the Eastern European Yiddish folklore-style melodies--"fakelore" as articulated by Svigals-- with well-known synagogue cantorial pieces and Viennese classical excerpts sounded as authentic as Dupont could have ever imagined. The playing was confident, and each musician had the opportunity to shine alone with their instrument, as well as in duet. In a fun touch, about 10 lucky audience members enthusiastically contributed to the live soundtrack by shaking, at the appropriate festival scene, the 'graggers' that Sosin handed out before the film!

For those interested in a deeper dive into the perspective that the musicians shared, check out this video.  The score is now included on a recent DVD release of the film from Flicker Alley. Go here to check it out.
Alicia Svigals & Donald Sosin (from
For those for whom the name Ernst Deutsch may be familiar, it turns out he had an important but small role in the 1949 British noir classic also set in Vienna, The Third Man. Here he is as Baron Kurtz in that film.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anthony Caruso's collaborations with Alan Ladd

This post is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by the great blogger team of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club, and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Go to any of those sites to read the other blogathon entries on this always fascinating topic of character actors.
Anthony Caruso in the 1940s
Like many of the best character actors during the 'golden age' of Hollywood, Anthony Caruso's output was prolific. Need a menacing henchman for your mob lead in a gangster picture? Call Caruso. Require an Indian chief to complicate the life of your Western hero or heroine? Caruso's your man. Caruso did it all and more in a 50-year career in movies, TV, and radio. Some of his parts were large, others were tiny, although most were villains or at least unsavory characters. His best roles allowed him to display his sensitivity and humanity. Today, there is not much written about him, but a few interview clips with him are available. What is interesting is that in those that I've seen he discusses his relationship with star Alan Ladd. On the surface, two more different actors could not be paired - Caruso, large and swarthy; Ladd, diminutive, soft-spoken, and blond. But yet the two careers were tightly intertwined in the 1940s and 1950s.
Caruso in Johnny Apollo film poster, 2nd from left.

Caruso was born in Indiana to Italian immigrants, but moved to California at age 10. His acting career started when he was still a teenager, playing in "all the chronicles Shakespeare ever wrote, from King John to Henry VIII"(1), at the Pasadena Playhouse. When young, he was a handsome guy, but his dark and brooding face and large muscular physique had the studios steering him into 'bad guy' character parts almost immediately. His first film role was in the 20th Century Fox Tyrone Power gangster film Johnny Apollo. His name appears way down in the credits as 'Joe the Henchman' but he appears in a film poster (2nd from left) with Power. His final film credit was in 1990, and he died at age 86 in 2003.

Throughout the 1940s, Caruso found steady work as a character player for multiple studios. His collaboration with Alan Ladd started very early in both their careers, in the 1942 Paramount gangster comedy (!) picture Lucky Jordan. This was a film Paramount rushed out when after This Gun For Hire, they realized they had a star in Ladd. (In another twist, Caruso was being seriously considered for the lead in This Gun For Hire, but Paramount chose to cast Ladd against type). Caruso had one short scene, sharing the screen with the film's villain Sheldon Leonard. Blink and you'll miss it.

A couple of years later, he had a bit part in another Ladd film, And Now Tomorrow, also starring Loretta Young. In this role, he again didn't have a chance to make much of an impression on the audience, but he did make one on Ladd. This is where their lifelong friendship and film collaboration truly took off.
Caruso (r) supporting Sheldon Leonard in his (unsuccessful)
attempt to take down Alan Ladd's character via a sharp shot
through a window in Lucky Jordan.
Caruso's version of the story goes like this. On the set, Alan asked Caruso to come to his dressing room to chat, and it was quickly clear to him that Caruso didn't remember their encounter nearly 10 years earlier. He refreshed Caruso's memory: in 1933 both aspiring actors were trying out for roles at the Pasadena Playhouse, and because Ladd had no lunch money, Caruso, who would have been 17 to Ladd's 20, bought Ladd lunch. Ladd related that he never forgot that act of kindness and wanted to give Caruso work whenever he could: "From that time on, Alan, a star, would throw me a script and say, 'pick a part'."(2) "He insisted that I be in his films, whenever I was available."(3)

Due to his bankable star status, Ladd had considerable sway at Paramount. It's not clear, though, if he played a role in Caruso's casting in The Blue Dahlia (1946), or Wild Harvest (1947). In The Blue Dahlia, Caruso is memorable, but again uncredited, as a Marine recently returned from WWII who is provoked by William Bendix's character at a bar's jukebox. His role in Wild Harvest is likewise tiny. Interestingly, Ladd's last role for Paramount was as the titular character of the classic Western Shane (1953). Caruso stated that he would have liked to have done a part in Shane more than any of the Ladd pictures he did do (3).

It didn't seem that Caruso needed Ladd for his career. In 1950 he was a major supporting player in one of the finest movies of his career, the great noir heist film, The Asphalt Jungle. Here he plays the safecracker Louis Ciavelli, a desperate man trying to provide for his family during difficult times. He gets shot when the heist goes wrong, but takes hours to die, staying loyal to his compadres to the end. The role took full advantage of Caruso's sensitive side and elicited the sympathy of the audience.
Caruso (second from right) plans a heist with Sam Jaffe,
Sterling Hayden, and James Whitmore in The Asphalt Jungle.
It was when Ladd moved to Warner Brothers in the early 1950s that Caruso's profile in Ladd's films increased. This was a time of career uncertainty for Ladd, as he was challenged to find his footing at his new studio. His response was both negative and positive--he started drinking heavily, but he also built his own production company, Jaguar Films, under the Warner Bros. umbrella, and produced a series of mostly Western films. None of these rose to the stature of Shane, but most were entertaining and bankable. Ladd relied heavily on many colleagues from Paramount and developed his own 'stock company', in which Caruso was a prominent member. Reliable directors such as Delmer Daves and Frank Tuttle, and co-stars such as Virginia Mayo, Shelley Winters, Edmond O'Brien, and Charles Bronson added to their value.

Caruso as Brog in The Big Land
At Jaguar/Warner Bros. from 1952-1958, Caruso worked with Ladd on seven films: The Iron Mistress (1952), Desert Legion (1953), Saskatchewan (1954), Drum Beat (1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Big Land (1957) and The Badlanders (1958). In two of these, he played a Native American, today a controversial casting choice, to be sure. However, despite that, in those roles Caruso was convincing.

One reason Ladd may have been eager to cast Caruso--according to Caruso, he was willing to slouch, stretch out his hips, or contort in other ways so as not to be taller than Ladd. "I know Alan appreciated that", he said (5).

I'd like to highlight two contrasting films of this time. The first, The Big Land, is a middling Western with Ladd teaming with Edmond O'Brien to make the Great Plains safe for cattle merchants. In this one, Caruso has a large part as the main villain, Brog. He's a ruthless cattle buyer who uses intimidation and murder to shut out the competition. There is no subtlety in the role, as Caruso leers and sneers, milking a mediocre script for all it's worth.

The second film is widescreen Cinemascope color noir Hell on Frisco Bay. This film evokes some memory of Ladd's success in noir in the 1940s, and adds to its noir credentials with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Stewart. It's worth checking out on DVD. Here, Caruso has a cameo that is a far cry from the cardboard villain Brog. He's a devoted father who happens to have some knowledge of a mob murder on the docks that ex-con Ladd is investigating. Ladd visits Caruso in his flat and catches him in the middle of a shave. While wanting to be helpful to Ladd, he realizes the price he may pay, and the risk to his young son, if he reveals too much. Over the course of the short scene he's tough, threatening, soft, fearful, all in quick succession. His casting here is a work of genius and perhaps the peak of the Ladd/Caruso collaboration.
Caruso assures Ladd he knows little about murder at the docks
in Hell on Frisco Bay.
Caruso with his young son (Peter J. Votrian) in Hell on Frisco Bay.

Sadly, Alan Ladd struggled professionally and personally at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, until he died from an accidental overdose at age 50 in 1964. In this later period, the film The Badlanders (with Ernest Borgnine and Caruso in a small role) is definitely worth checking out. It's a western version of The Asphalt Jungle, and Ladd brings an appropriate amount of world-weary cynicism that enhances the adventure.

As for Caruso, his career lasted almost another 30 years after Ladd died, and he continued to find success in Westerns, mobster, and 'ethnic' roles in TV and movies. Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will recall him as a gangster in the time travel episode 'A Piece of the Action' from 1968. If he were born a generation later, he may have found long-lasting success as a member of the New Jersey mob in the acclaimed TV series The Sopranos. In real life, apparently, Caruso's life was quite the opposite of many of his characters. His hobbies included cooking and gardening, and his marriage lasted 63 years. His career is a model of character actor success in Hollywood-a nearly 50-year career in all kinds of roles, using a variety of talents, and knowing that taking work is sometimes more important than ensuring that every role has substantive screen time. Whenever Caruso pops up in a film, you're guaranteed to be entertained.
Caruso (l) confronts Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek's episode
"A Piece of the Action"

(1) Interview with Sunset Carson
(2) Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man (Documentary)
(3)-(5) Interview with Sunset Carson