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Saturday, April 7, 2018

My 2018 TCM Film Festival Schedule!

Here it is, folks - my plan for the TCM Film Festival (April 26-29 in Hollywood).  This year's theme is 'Powerful Words, the Page Onscreen', highlighting films that showcase the best of translating the written word to the screen.  For those of you not familiar with what a typical day's schedule looks like, check out the image below.  At any one time slot, you have at a minimum five amazing options to choose from. Multiply this by 4 days, and you'll see why the task of developing the schedule is a significant source of heartburn.

Thursday evening, April 26th
Ginger Rogers and Frances Dee in Finishing School
Because I don't have a pass level that gets me into the Red Carpet opening night event, I won't be seeing The Producers with special guest Mel Brooks.  Instead, I'll attend Finishing School, a pre-code with a young Ginger Rogers.  Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of classic era star Joel McCrea, will be on hand to discuss the film.  My caveat to this is that if it is a particularly warm night, I'll be tempted to attend the poolside screening of the 1950s sci-fi/horror classic Them!It will also be hard to stay away from the first pairing of Bogey & Bacall in To Have and Have Not, but because I've seen this one, I'm inclined to choose the one I haven't seen. 

For the second feature of the evening I'll stick around Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 for Throne of Blood (1957), the famed Japanese director Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  I'm tempted to see another Ginger Rogers film Stage Door in a nitrate print, but since I've recently seen this one, I'll stick with the Bard.

Friday, April 27th, MorningOn the first full day of the festival I'll stick with Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 in the morning.  First up at 9:00 AM is Intruder in the Dust, a 1949 adaptation of the famed William Faulkner novel.  I've not seen this one, and it promises to be interesting, if for no other reason that Faulkner himself was involved with the choice of locations in Mississippi for filming, and one of my favorite classic era directors, Clarence Brown, took the helm.

The second morning film is a choice between:
a) The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) pairing Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in an adaptation of Alfred Tennyson's poem.  Flynn and de Havilland always generate sparks onscreen, and I look forward to seeing this for the first time.
b) The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) will be on the docket if I feel like a Preston Sturges comedy instead of an adventure flick. 
Help me decide, people!

Friday, April 27th, Afternoon
After a quick bite, next up is A Hatful of Rain from 1957.  This one is based on a hit play about drug addiction, not a common topic for films during those years.  One of its stars, the lovely Eva Marie Saint, will be making remarks about the film before the screening. That makes it a must-see for me.  This film will let out with little time to spare before None Shall Escape (1944), a WWII thriller.  Star Marsha Hunt and 'Czar of Noir' Eddie Muller will be present in person. 
Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint in A Hatful of Rain
Friday, April 27th, Evening
This will be easy.  It's The Roaring Twenties, people! Prior to the poolside screening of this 1939 film starring the best 20's gangster in the 1930s, James Cagney, there is a costume party! I can't resist this and need to get shopping, pronto! A bonus is that the film is new to me. If for some reason weather isn't cooperating, or any outfit fails to materialize, the nitrate color print of Leave Her to Heaven (1945) with the lovely femme fatale Gene Tierney, beckons.

Saturday, April 28th, MorningAfter a relatively early evening (!) on Friday, I should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for His Girl Friday (1940) at the Chinese Theater IMAX.  This one was one of the films used to market the festival, and with the great duo of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and a superb twist (female reporter, anyone?) on the lauded play The Front Page, it is bound to be popular. I'll need to plan to get up early and get in the queue promptly with a large cup of joe. Now I have seen this one, but not on the big screen, and it's been a while.

The second morning feature will be from the renowned French director Jean-Pierre Melville, who would have been 100 this year. I've recently seen two of his films here in Boston, and absolutely love his detached but suspenseful, visually-stimulating style. The film on tap is When You Read This Letter (1953), said to be a blend of romantic melodrama and film noir. It won't be boring!

Saturday, April 28th, Afternoon
Back to Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 for the afternoon.  First up is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the classic era (1938) adaptation of the Mark Twain novel. I have an early fuzzy memory of having watched this one as a youngun, but need to revisit it.  It'll be tough to miss Sunset Boulevard and Wife Vs. Secretary, but both of these are classics, televised quite often, and I've seen both recently.   Next up will be another war picture, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), William Wellman's adaptation of Ernie Pyle's memoirs. It's an early film with Robert Mitchum, who never disappoints

Saturday, April 28th, EveningA quick dinner and it's off to the 7 PM feature, Show People. This one will be my only silent film of the festival, and with live music by pianist Ben Model, will no doubt be a blast.  I'll finish up the day with Hitchcock, and will plan to be Spellbound by this 1945 film, which it appears I've never seen.  I must correct that, and what better way to do that than with a theater full of classic film fans. Bonus-this one's screened in nitrate at the Egyptian theater (note: RUN to queue!), and stars Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.
Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound
Sunday, April 29th, Morning
For whatever reason, Sunday was an easier day for me to plan.  I start with the epic Sergio Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West.  Last year I so enjoyed Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show made around the same time, so I'm anticipating a great sweeping experience with this one.  Nothing else during that time period appeals to me; same for the 2nd morning slot. I think I'll attend the panel discussion at 'Club TCM' with the Mankiewicz siblings talking about their families' Hollywood legacy yesterday and today.  

Sunday, April 29th, Afternoon
First, I'll get a breather before the afternoon slot. While it's tempting to see The Ten Commandments on the big screen, I've seen that one so many times, including just last week, that I can pass.  I'll enjoy a nice leisurely lunch and head over to the Chinese Multiplex 6 to see Hamlet (1948). I've not seen this one, and since I've seen several other 'Hamlets' over the years, it's about time I experience for myself what makes this Sir Laurence Olivier's definitive role.  British actor Alan Cumming will be in attendance. 

Sunday, April 29th, Evening
I'll wrap up this festival, I think suitably, with A Star is Born.  This is the one from the 1930s starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. It's probably sacrilege, but I'm not a fan of the Judy Garland version, and I've only seen clips from the earlier film.  I'm sure this screening will be popular, as it's on nitrate, showing over at the Egyptian.  William Wellman Jr., son of the director, will be in attendance.

So that's my plan as of April 7. Check back after the festival for my full report!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Herbert Marshall, A Biography, by Scott O'Brien

Hooray! One of my favorites finally has a full-length biography: British actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966).  Author Scott O'Brien has once again done a fabulous job with a lesser-known old Hollywood star, and those (like me!) who want to know about all there is to know about the talented, enigmatic Mr. 'Bart' Marshall should pick up a copy.  The biography was published in February of this year, and is available on Amazon, and also through the publisher's website Bear Manor Media.

[Check out my post on my favorite Marshall film performances here]

Mr. O'Brien certainly did his research. He unearthed many interviews published during Marshall's lifetime, but further, was able to talk to many of his friends and colleagues, other authors, and friends of friends, to get further insights into the real Mr. Marshall.  It should be noted that Marshall had a prolific stage career as well. O'Brien's book offers a complete list of his stage as well as screen credits. 

The book uses a chronological approach, and blends detail about his stage and film engagements with events from his personal life.  O'Brien adopts a matter-of-fact tone, and steers clear of drawing psychological inferences or embellishment.  The biography may have benefited from a bit more probing into the drive and ambition that Marshall would have mustered to overcome his disability, as well as the psychological toll over the years. The sources being ultimately limited most likely do not allow for that. 
When I first became a Marshall devotee a few years ago, I watched nearly all his films that could be found, and read as much as I could about him. Sadly, there wasn't much.  But I felt that I was pretty thorough in my own personal research, if frustrated with the lack of detail and contradictory reports.  So, I will admit with a modicum of pride that I was familiar with much of the detail of Marshall's life in the book.  Yet, there was much that I didn't know.  Here are just a few facts that were of particular interest to me:

War Injury:  Most classic film fans know Marshall lost a leg in World War I, and worked in Hollywood using an often painful prosthesis.  Many accounts state that he lost his *right* leg.  Thankfully, O'Brien confirms it was actually the LEFT, which is what I suspected all along after, as I mentioned, having watched nearly all of his available films. I can't explain why this is important to me, as Marshall, while not exactly hiding his injury, preferred not to talk much about it.  It's perhaps the laziness of other writers or researchers to be careless with facts that annoyed me whenever I came across this little error.  O'Brien even specifically cites author Mark Vieira as the source of this information.
1930s Hollywood glamor: Marshall with Trouble in Paradise
co-star and friend Kay Francis
Longevity:  Marshall worked his entire life, making his last film just a few months before he died at age 75.  According to O'Brien, Marshall never considered retirement.  This I find particularly interesting. It is not entirely clear if there were financial reasons, or Marshall just loved to work.  

Complicated personal life:  Having married five times and a carried on a significant relationship with Gloria Swanson during his adult life, it's natural that his personal life must have been complicated. But what I didn't know was that, according to comments by those that knew him, he was more of a ladies' man than even his documented relationships may have had you believe. His immense personal charm was a valuable asset in this regard.  That said, by all accounts, he was a generous, kind, and self-effacing person.

His connections with other stars:  Marshall was close to many in his profession. He was a lifelong friend of fellow British character actor Eric Blore. Marshall and Blore starred together in the comedy Breakfast For Two (1937), in which Blore played Marshall's valet. Barbara Stanwyck was the leading lady. It's a lesser known but still fun screwball comedy. Ronald Colman was also a close friend.  Both stars died before Marshall, and he grieved when he lost his old friends.
Eric Blore (left) and Marshall relax while making Breakfast for Two
(Picture featured in O'Brien's biography of Herbert Marshall
Love of Trouble in Paradise:  What is one of my favorite films was apparently a favorite of Marshall's as well.  This gem from 1932 is a classic Ernst Lubitsch pre-code sophisticated European comedy. 

His middle-class upbringing: To those of us on this side of the Atlantic, a British accent often connotes education and/or breeding.  Marshall had a fabulous voice and terrific use of the 'Queen's English'. He was admired his entire life for that, and for his brand of 'Britishness' and gentlemanly manner. He sometimes bristled at being labeled a 'gentleman' because in the UK he was decidedly middle-class, having been born in a family of working actors.

Marshall's life and career arc have the advantage of extending through the full first half of cinema history, on two continents. For that reason alone, the biography is a fascinating read - how one person navigated serious setbacks, cultural barriers, etc., to find consistent work in the industry until the mid-1960s. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Agnès Varda's turn at an Oscar

As a classic film enthusiast, I consider "classic films" and "films of today" two different animals.  Despite the connective thread through film history, this is at least partly because the great filmmakers of the past aren't typically Still. Making. Films.  Enter director Agnès Varda, one of the rare exceptions.  This pioneer of the French New Wave began her film career in 1954, and at 89 years old her 2017 film Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is her first to be nominated for an Oscar--we'll know in just one week if she will be the oldest living filmmaker to win any competitive Oscar.  This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two very special screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, with Ms. Varda in person to answer questions after both screenings.  This post will summarize my thoughts about the films, with emphasis on Faces Places, and some insights Ms. Varda provided her enthusiastic fans at the screening.

As soon as the opening credits of Faces Places started rolling on Friday evening it was immediately apparent that we were going to be witnessing filmmaking at its very best. The clever use of animations brought us right into the whimsical world we were about to enter.
From opening credits of Faces Places (screengrab from film's trailer)
The film documentarians, Varda and her visual artist/collaborator JR, would not only tell the stories, they would BE part of the stories.  After the film, Varda commented that in her documentaries, she never believed that the filmmaker could or should be remote from her subject, and thus she is comfortable being in front as well as behind the camera: "When you do a documentary, you are part of it."

Varda (from Le Monde, 2017)
I'll admit right now that until a couple of months ago, I was a Varda newbie. I attempted to address that quickly by watching two of her most critically acclaimed earlier films, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Le Bonheur (1965). Cleo is the film that put her clearly in the French New Wave camp, and yet her place in that camp was special -- as a woman filmmaker telling a uniquely woman's story. Her contemporaries were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (with whom she remains friendly), Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jacques Demy, who became her husband.  She also had the distinction of coming to film from photography; born in Belgium in 1928, she moved to France early in her life and devoted over 10 years to her photojournalism career.  This perspective allowed her to craft intimate and compelling stories from everyday life and put them movingly on film.  

With a bit of background behind me, I can postulate safely that Faces Places is an amalgam of what makes Varda so great.  First, it's not just her film; she collaborated with a young French artist known only as 'JR', with whom she developed a strong artistic partnership. JR is a muralist, who takes black-and-white photos of people and places, enlarges them, and plasters them on the sides of buildings or other large inanimate objects as way to comment on the world.  Under the tutelage of master Varda, he embarks on a journey around France, capturing photos of everyday life, mostly of working classes or the marginalized, and makes them literally larger-than-life to bring attention to their causes, or just their humanity in an overly mechanized world. 

The journey, and the work, is beautifully filmed and edited by Varda, although she shares directorial credit with JR. A particularly poignant vignette contrasts two goat-milking farms. One farm has mechanized milking machines and all the goats have their horns burned off at a young age to prevent them from fighting. The proprietors of another, smaller, farm allow their goats to keep their horns, and milks the goats manually. Varda and JR, without being preachy, challenge the prevailing societal opinion that productivity is king; goats should be allowed to keep their horns.  This is illustrated no better than in their mural as shown below.

A number of such compelling stories of everyday life are illuminated in the film, a Varda specialty. At the Q&A Varda was asked about the extent of her planning ahead what she captures on film.  She answered, and I paraphrase, "I am mainly curious about people. In my documentaries, I get to know people by just being curious and wanting to learn. I plan where I want to go, but then I am ready for chance to provide direction."  In another moving scene, Varda and JR plastered the oversized images of three striking dockworkers' wives at a construction site at Le Havre, to give them a presence in their man's world. She elaborated in the Q&A by saying, "As a feminist, I want to move the needle, but we need to work with the men to change the circumstances." And also, "I never ask (her subjects) about politics, but I go quietly to these people."  

Although the focus of the film was mostly on others, it turned internal at times. On film, JR and Varda had a conversation in a cemetery about death, and Varda said she's not afraid of death, but wonders what is on the other side, and feels it getting closer. She elaborated a bit about mortality in the post-film discussion, saying her memory had holes in it, like swiss cheese, but that she has come to terms with that. "We are made as a mixture of memory and discovery."

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985)
Vagabond (1985) was screened on Saturday night, and unlike Faces Places, has a dark, existential tone. Sandrine Bonnaire shines as the titular character, a 17-year old vagrant in France, who tries to fit in society but ultimately it rejects her--and she it. The film feels in many ways like a documentary, as all scenes were filmed in real locations, and most of the supporting cast were not actors.  To better connect with her character of Mona, Varda spent time driving around rural France and picking up hitchhikers, learning about their lifestyle and their habits, "even what was in their backpacks," she said.  

The theme of  'journey' also connects the two films.  In fact, characters on some sort of physical, as well as symbolic journey, are common to Varda's writing. When asked about this at the end of the screening, Varda commented that the theme of 'walking' in particular was prevalent in the French New Wave.  (Cleo from 5 to 7 follows a young woman walking around Paris.)  "People walk as a reaction to society," she said.  

I'm so so glad I've discovered the films of Agnès Varda, and even more thrilled to have seen her in person, two extraordinary evenings in a row.  While I've not seen any of the other Oscar-nominated documentaries, I want Faces Places to win on March 4. I want to see Varda, along with JR, on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood--the difference in their ages and heights poignantly on display--accepting an award that celebrates unheralded film history as much as one film.  This would be a significant step in bringing Varda's 70-year distinguished career into a brighter light, and further chipping away at the limitations and discrimination faced by women in film history for longer than that.

This post is part of the '31 Days of Oscar' Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Click here to check out all the other great posts honoring past and present Oscar films and stories.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Volcanos and fiery conversation: An afternoon with Werner Herzog

When you have the chance to see a film never before shown on the big screen AND to see its celebrity filmmaker live, you don't turn it down.

Last Thursday was the day that Werner Herzog visited The Coolidge Corner Theatre to accept his Coolidge Award, and although that specific event was in the evening, in the afternoon he attended a screening of his 2016 Netflix documentary Into the Inferno, and had an extended Q&A after.  A memorable afternoon it most certainly was! 

As a Coolidge member, I had reserved a ticket weeks ago, got there early, and saved a seat for my friend.  I shot this photo while waiting for her, but when she arrived we moved closer several rows.  Then the fun began.
First up was the film, and I loved itIt follows the Herzog blueprint of exploring distant and dangerous lands, this time sharing the lens with British volcanographer Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog has had a longtime friendship.  The film isn't about the science of volcanoes, although there is some of that; it isn't about the search to uncover volcanic secrets, although there is that; it isn't about capturing the violence and cinematic beauty of volcanic eruptions, although there is that as well.  In reality, it's a little of all those things, with perhaps humankind's odd and wondrous relationships with volcanoes being the primary theme.  Herzog himself traveled to locales like Indonesia, North Korea, and the Danekil desert in Ethiopia, developing relationships with and seeking insights from those that live on the edge of volcanic worlds. I found the segment with an inside view of the North Korean society, along with their country's volcanic origin story, to be particularly fascinating, especially today.  
North Korean children instructed in music (from Netflix Into the Inferno trailer)
The film successfully weaves scientific, personal and sociological explorations seamlessly with the characteristic Herzog editing finesse.  I didn't mind that a single theme wasn't deeply explored - which was a criticism by at least one reviewer I read.  The film was varied enough that whatever your interest, you were left wanting more, in a good way.  Another feature of a Herzog film in abundant evidence here, to this fan's delight, was the choice of music.  Choral music by Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, and Schutz, along with the prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and traditional vocal music by Russian monks from the Kiev Pechersk Monastery, enhanced the magic and awe that we were taking in visually.

At the end of the film, Herzog was formally introduced by Katherine Tallman, Executive Director at the Coolidge, and was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out crowd.

With a slightly raspy voice, he answered questions from moderator Professor Herbert Golder (Boston University).   For those interested, the entire Q&A was captured via Facebook Live and archived here.

Naturally, many of the questions related to the film we had just seen. I was surprised when he expressed that one of his main motivations to make the film was to get young audiences excited about science.  "If young people are inspired to become scientists, then the film will have been worth it." 
Herbert Golder from Boston U. and Werner Herzog.
There was also discussion about the larger themes, especially religious and spiritual, that are included in this and much of Herzog's work.  He acknowledged that while not adhering to a specific religion, he is fascinated by 'belief systems' and inspired to reach the sublime that is beyond everyday realities.  Considering much of his chosen music was religious, he told of a difficult negotiation with the Russian Orthodox church, which objected to sacred music with reference to 'voices of angel's being superimposed over images of volcanic eruptions.  In deference, Herzog left out some of the music he wanted to include. 

Herzog touched on his career of getting close to 'the edge' in many of his films.  He laughed and said he's still around because he balances his awe of nature with appropriate prudence.  The conversation naturally turned to the future of our planet, and his remarks were balanced--no doomsday view from this filmmaker.  "We are on shaky ground, but that doesn't mean we should roll back progress or go back to being hunters/gatherers."  And, "The Amish would be the only survivors on the planet if the internet went down for two weeks." (!)

Finally, he was asked his views, somewhat indirectly, about the current political climate in the U.S.  This is when the conversation turned fiery, and Herzog didn't hold back: "Trump was elected in a democratic process. We have to live with this.  The problem is not Trump, but the culture and the alienation felt by many in the heartland of the U.S.  The problem is not Steven's Point, Wisconsin, the problem is Boston."  A respectful hush came over the cinema then.  Herzog apparently feels that those in the audience at the Coolidge should work harder to develop a discourse with those in 'flyover' country.  I won't comment further, as my role is film blogger, not political commenter.  

I was glad that before this event, I took time to watch more of Herzog's work, including Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), as shared in last month's blog; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and the fascinating documentary My Best Fiend (1999) about his relationship with volatile, unstable, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski.  It helped me better appreciate the skill and uniqueness of this still active auteur, with whom I shared an afternoon.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the evening conversation and award presentation, but for those interested, that is also available on Facebook here:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)

Every year my neighborhood rep house the Coolidge Corner Cinema honors a distinguished person in film with the  'Coolidge Award'.  This year, it's German director Werner Herzog, who is 75 years old in 2018.  He'll be visiting on February 8 for an afternoon screening of a TBA film followed by a Q&A, and then a full evening discussion with Boston University Classics professor Herbert Golder.  See details here.
Werner Herzog (photo from
I've only seen a couple of his films, but I decided that I need to see more, in preparation for the afternoon session that I'll be attending that day.  Luckily for me, Filmstruck has several of his films currently available, and I only somewhat reluctantly decided to take a look at his telling of the Dracula legend, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).  Those familiar with classic horror films will likely already know the film it's based on, F.W. Murnau's legendary silent film Nosferatu from 1922.  German compatriot Herzog, decades later, apparently loved the film and decided to remake it, but with the original names from the Bram Stoker novel restored.  Usually, remaking a classic is a bad idea.  In this case, it was actually a pleasant (?) surprise.  I started watching fearing I'd quickly be repulsed, or bored, or both. I was quickly drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I would give a green light to any classic film fan thinking about watching this one.  (Unless they would be unsettled by rats; lots and lots and lots of rats.)  A few observations follow.

Herzog was obviously going for the "look" that Max Schreck brought to his role as the skeletally thin, toothy menace that is Nosferatu (Count Dracula) when he made up Klaus Kinski.  Check it out:

Klaus Kinski as Dracula (1979)
Max Schreck as Nosferatu (1922)

The two directors have different approaches to the character, however. Murnau creates a sense of mystery in his Nosferatu by generally requiring us to maintain a distance from the vampire-- his most memorable appearances filmed mostly in silhouette, shadow, or in medium or long shots.  He's certainly creepy enough and we get the point that he's to be feared. Herzog, on the other hand, brings us close in to his Dracula, as we can't help but sense the realness, albeit horrifying nature, of this creature. Herzog is interested in the complex psychology of the character, and Kinski delivers -- while he's so horribly ugly and repulsive, we simultaneously feel some empathy for the great pain that the man is obviously dealing with, the affliction that causes him to have to feed on the blood of living humans without ever resting or being able to grow old and die.  Kinski was notorious for his unstable personality, and had to be institutionalized when he was a young man; perhaps some of that madness is channeled here.  

Herzog provides us well-rounded characters of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who somehow can't get his business transacted with Dracula quick enough to escape without being neck-bitten, and his devoted wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) who ultimately vanquishes the menace, at cost to her own life.  The sexual angle of the Dracula story isn't overemphasized, but you will certainly see it if you look.  Renfield, the business owner who sends Harker on his adventure is already losing his mind -- his constant high pitched cackle as supplied by actor Roland Topor was incredibly annoying in short order.

A sense of unease settles over Count Dracula's houseguest, Jonathan Harker
Herzog seems interested in the everyday living of this central European town that is simultaneously beset with vampire horror and the Black Death, not necessarily coincidentally.  Many shots look like still life paintings of the great Dutch masters. Herzog and cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein relied heavily on natural light, or candlelight, which gave the film a sense of time and place, as well as a natural hearth-bound beauty, or ominous beauty of the wilderness:
In Renfield's office: Kittens with books and apples
I also loved the soundtrack. Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh are credited, and their contributions are the modern, dissonant themes, but also new-agey guitar compositions which give a comforting and romantic feel to the early scenes in the film, like this one between Jonathan and his wife Lucy.

However, the climax of the first third of the film, when Harker has left the comfort of the inn and climbs into the starkness of the Carpathian mountains towards Dracula's dwelling, is scored with the Prelude to Wagner's Ring Cycle--the opening of Das Rheingold.  It's lush, majestic music that builds slowly quietly to almost a triumphant forte.  Perhaps it was chosen because of the opera's overarching theme of the destructive nature of the quest for gold -- not unlike the destruction Harker unwittingly brings upon his own town at the end of the film as he pursues his chance for wealth.  

The entire sequence is currently on YouTube, linked below.  Wagner's Prelude to Das Rheingold starts about 2 minutes in.

Roger Ebert, a great admirer of Herzog, considered his version of the Dracula story worthy of inclusion in his list of "Great Movies."  Read here his summary of the powerful experience that is watching this film.  Finally, fellow blogger Silent-ology wrote a great essay about this film in 2015, read it here.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking forward to 2018 in Film

So here we are, the end of another year!  It was a busy one for me as I made a major career change by going into consulting.  This means my time is more flexible, but I have a lot of irons in the fire...which is good, because I get to do more cool things, but also tends to mean I don't have as much time to devote to any one thing.  I also have to be a bit more finance-conscious.  For a variety of reasons, distractions, etc., I didn't watch as many new-to-me films as in previous years.  Here's the tally since I started reporting out:

2015: 178
2016:  162
2017:  85

(I use to record my viewings.  Anyone else who uses this service, add me as a 'friend' - jcdohio)

What am I looking forward to in 2018?

Renowned Belgian film director Agnès Varda is coming to the Harvard Film Archive!  Varda, who is known for her influential creative style, especially during the French new wave, will be entering her 90th year (!), and she is still producing films. On Friday, Feb 22, she will attend the screening of her 2017 documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), and on Saturday Feb 23 she'll be present for Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) from 1985.  I expect she'll make some comments and take audience questions.  I haven't yet had the opportunity to see any of this 'trailblazing woman's' films, but this is my opportunity, and to get to hear her insights live is certainly a great privelege.  The HFA is also screening a number of her other films during the month of February.

The 2018 TCM Film Festival (of COURSE!) in Hollywood, April 26-29.  This year, the theme is Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen, promising film adaptations of novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry, or any other written medium.  A few films have already been announced, and the entire program won't be available until shortly before the festival starts.  This may be my chance to finally see the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet!  Catching up with film friends will be a highlight, as well, and making some new friends.  I may also take time away from Tinseltown to catch a Dodgers game before the festival starts.  My sources tell me the reigning National League champs are in town!  Check out the 1-min promo clip below:

The Coolidge Corner Theatre hasn't yet announced their 2018 collaboration with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, but in past years a world premiere of a new score, played live by this great local ensemble, would happen in May, so I keep checking their website.  Last year, their score for Harold Lloyd's The Freshman was incomparable.  I hope to see this score released on DVD soon!  Their recent scores for Variete and The Last Laugh are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Kino Lorber label.

McFarland Books will releases Derek Sculthorpe's latest biography, this time of film noir queen Claire Trevor. I look forward to reading about this underrated actress whose film career lasted over 50 years. You may know her best as John Wayne's love interest in Stagecoach (1939) or as the sultry singer from Key Largo (1948).
Claire Trevor (
This is just a sampling of what I know will be another great year of film-watching and blogging.  I hope to continue to join blogathons and get involved in more such events to learn about films and film history, and to 'give back' to do my little part to keep classic film alive!

Happy New Year everyone!  Gotta get ready to party!
William Powell and Myrna Loy celebrate New Years'
as Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man (1936)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Brian Donlevy, the "Good Bad Guy" - Book Review & Author Interview

Who doesn't love a charismatic villain? The best villains are those who not only steal all the scenes they are in, but make you root for them by exposing their humanity, vulnerability, or sheer likeability.  In one of my favorite examples, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a tremendous turn as devilish, dashing  'Rupert of Hentzau' in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).  (By the way, this movie is terrific beyond just Fairbanks, Jr., so check it out if you haven't already seen it.)

Brian Donlevy, publicity photo from
Destry Rides Again.  (
I'd seen character actor Brian Donlevy (1901-1972) in a few films from the 1940s before he really registered on my radar, but that all changed when I watched Destry Rides Again (1939).  I wrote about this western, starring James Stewart, here, and had commented on how Donlevy really killed it.  It turns out that playing deeply flawed characters, protagonists or antagonists, was Donlevy's specialty.  Some were straight out villains that were unlikeable but still charismatic (Beau Geste, 1939), villains that were just unlikeable and not particularly charismatic (The Virginian, 1946), misguided tough guys with hearts of gold (McGinty in The Great McGinty1940), or corrupt politicians with a sense of humor (The Glass Key1942).  But his career also saw him assaying strong upstanding guys--two that I enjoyed were: in Two Years Before the Mast (1946), he supported leading man Alan Ladd as the real-life writer who ultimately exposes the poor working conditions aboard sailing vessels in early 19th century; in Kiss of Death (1947) he plays the straight and sympathetic D.A. to Victor Mature's reforming ex-con.  If nothing else, his range was wide and he was reliable, and sometimes breathtaking. 

Late last year, his first full-length biography, titled Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy, was published by McFarland Books, and does justice to this often overlooked actor's life and career.  The author, Derek Sculthorpe, who also wrote the recent bio of Van Heflin that I reviewed here, answered some of my questions about his work, and I intersperse them throughout this post.

Sculthorpe's objective in writing about Donlevy was to "provide a comprehensive and human assessment of his life and career."  As with the Heflin book, it's thoroughly researched.  The primary focus is on the detailed output of Donlevy's career, and because Sculthorpe watched every available film and television show, he is able to draw detailed insights about his work.  It really is a great reference for those interested in film history, as Sculthorpe provides the background of each film's production, a short description, an analysis, and citations from press of the time.

Despite this heavy film focus, Sculthorpe intersperses chronologically those specifics of Donlevy's personal life that he uncovered during his research so that we get a sense of who this man was.  For example, with his study of military records, Sculthorpe was able to debunk some of the more colorful stories of Donlevy's service before and during WWI which were fed to the press during Donlevy's early acting career, and which are still part of the lead bio on
Donlevy with starlet Rita Cansino, soon to become
mega-star Rita Hayworth, in Human Cargo (1936)
(Photo from: Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy,
McFarland Books 2016)

Q.  How long did it take you to research and write your book on Donlevy?

Sculthorpe:  "It took several months to research. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process. The thing is that once you start writing you begin to find more things. Obviously by the end you have so much.  It took about eight months to write. This is so much less than it took for Heflin of course which was about two years or so in total. I learnt so much writing the first one which meant that I knew what to expect this time."

We learn that, in many ways, Donlevy had a career typical of many Hollywood actors of his generation, working until just a couple of years before he succumbed to cancer in 1972 at the age of 71.  While he had no real formal acting training, he scored successes in film, the Broadway stage, radio and television. He had a private life that wasn't without its bumps and bruises, and battled alcoholism.  He struggled with being typecast as a 'heavy', but often made the best of those roles, and relished those in which he played against type. 

Q.  What film of Donlevy's that is less well-known would you recommend people watch because of Donlevy's presence?
Brian Donlevy and Susan Hayward on
the set of Canyon Passage (

Sculthorpe:  "It’s hard to name just one. I would say Canyon Passage, which was an interesting role. Among the less well-known ones I especially liked 36 Hours to Kill (1936) in which he showed a lightness of touch; he was romantic and jaunty. The Remarkable Andrew (1942) (where Donlevy played the ghost of President Andrew Jackson) because he worked well with (William) Holden and it was something different.  Incidentally, in one of his early shorts, Ireno (1932) he had a tiny uncredited role as a drunk which was well-observed I thought. It is very short but is now available on YouTube:"

Donlevy first gained star status with his Oscar-nominated turn as the villain in Beau Geste.  But his career reached its apex in the 1940s, where he was under contract with Paramount, and where he made most of the hit films I cited as those catching my attention.  Later, as his career ebbed, he worked for various other studios, such as Republic, and ventured into television.  His hit show Dangerous Assignment in the 1950s was based on the radio show of the same name, that Donlevy himself conceived and wrote.  In it, he's a debonair but tough U.S. special agent dealing with all kinds of cases of intrigue and adventure.  Interestingly to me, he married the widow of Bela Lugosi late in life, after having divorced two wives, and Sculthorpe was in touch with stepson Bela Lugosi Jr., for insights about Donlevy.  One gets the sense that Donlevy had a restless energy all his life that propelled him to success, but also perhaps never allowed him contentment with his choices.  He dabbled in writing poetry and fiction, and investments in mining concerns.

Q.  In reading the book, it struck me that Donlevy’s life and career had parallels to those of Van Heflin, the subject of your earlier book (e.g. talents underused, character actor vs. lead, challenges in personal life such as difficult relationships with children, drinking, etc).  Any thoughts about what made them similar, and perhaps more importantly, what was different about the two? 

Donlevy with Gloria Stuart in 36 Hours to Kill (
Sculthorpe: "I think Heflin was a far more intense actor; for him acting was a real craft and he put a great deal into his roles, especially on stage. Those parts were physically and emotionally draining. For Donlevy, it was more of a job I would say, a means to an end. Both were a similar generation, both loners and, as you say, had a drinking problem. As to drinking, it is a common theme, and others such as William Holden and Robert Ryan were comparable. I think that generation were encouraged to keep emotion inside. Conversely, I think this made them better actors. Both sought adventure in their early lives, but the crucial difference was that Donlevy wanted to be part of something (the army), whereas Heflin just wanted to escape and do his own thing. Overall, I would say Heflin turned down a great many more roles than Donlevy. Their attitude to television was revealing; Heflin saw it as diminishing the art of acting in some way. Donlevy was practical and enjoyed one of his greatest successes with a TV series."

Q.  If you could play casting director…is there any film role that Donlevy would have been absolutely the best choice for (past or present) that may have showcased his talents better?  

Sculthorpe:  "I would like to have seen him as Frank Elgin in The Country Girl, (1954) which he only ever did on stage in his “straw hat” days. I know Bing Crosby did it well but Donlevy was said to be unexpectedly good in that role so that would have been interesting."

Q. What is your next project?

Sculthorpe:  "My next book is about Claire Trevor, it should be out at the beginning of next year." 
The subjects I have chosen have not been the most obvious ones, or the easiest to write about. I just feel that the big stars - Marilyn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis et al. have been written about a lot. What more can be said about them? A vast number never made it to their level, but nonetheless have a story to tell. It is heartening to see that there have recently been books about Lloyd Nolan, Richard Jaeckel, Dan Duryea and other less feted people for instance."

Sculthorpe added that he would be interested to know which subjects my blog readers would like to see books written about -- feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

This post is my entry in the 2017 "What a Character" Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Check out all the posts to satisfy your curiosity about actors you've probably seen but may not know their names.  All these actors deserve to have their stories told for what they gave us on the silver screen.