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Monday, October 17, 2016

THE BIG KNIFE (1955) – on an excoriation of the Hollywood studio system, and a eulogy for John Garfield

This post is my entry in the 2016 CMBA Fall Blogathon 'Hollywood on Hollywood.'  Check out all the posts here.

If any film could cure me of my obsession with classic Hollywood, The Big Knife might be it.  Made in 1955 by veteran director Robert Aldrich, it pulls out every imaginable stop on the way to creating a portrait of a Hollywood that is completely corrupt, a place which around every turn is Lucifer himself, and in which only the strongest can survive.  Of course, this wasn’t entirely Aldrich’s vision, but first that of Clifford Odets, famed playwright who spent time in Hollywood and formed, shall we say, a not-so-flattering opinion of its inner workings, which formed the basis of his play of the same name.  Three years earlier, Hollywood lost one of its brighter stars, actor John Garfield; his untimely death of a heart ailment at age 39 was widely believed to be related to his anguish resulting from his Hollywood blacklisting.  Ironically, Garfield was the one who had taken on the role of the main character in the initial Broadway run of Odets’ play in 1949.  As a Hollywood casualty, Garfield was, for those making the film, top of mind during the creative process.

Clifford Odets,
Odets in the late 1940s had already had a successful run as an acclaimed actor and playwright (Golden Boy; Awake and Sing!)  in New York.  In those early years he was a member of the Group Theater, a progressive cohort including director Lee Strasburg, then spent nearly a decade in Hollywood, writing for film and for television.  As someone who was sensitive to the tug-of-war between the human spirit and Hollywood, he himself felt he ‘sold out’ to the system, and began to suffer periods of creative lapse.  His play about the devastating effects of ‘pressure’ from the Hollywood star factory ‘The Big Knife’ was observed to be a very loose autobiographical portrait.  Its main character, star actor heartthrob Charlie Castle, finds himself at a career crossroads at the opening; his marriage is in trouble and he has been unhappy in his roles provided by his home studio, where he’s under contract.  His recent contract is up and he’s under pressure from the studio head, Marcus Hoff, to sign another multi-year deal. His wife has issued an ultimatum – sign and she leaves with their young son.  For its part, the studio holds a powerful weapon in a criminal secret of a Castle misdeed they kept quiet from the public.  The story takes place within Castle's own luxurious Beverly Hills home, with comings and goings of his wife, agent, studio boss Hoff and wing man Coy, friend Buddy Bliss and his wife, herself a sometime lover of Charlie, a fading starlet, also fatefully involved with Charlie, a famed gossip columnist, and a couple of personal assistants.  In just a few days, Castle goes from mere anxiety to desperation and depression, as he buckles under and fights various pressures and makes fateful decisions. 

John Garfield.
At the time Garfield took the lead role in this play on Broadway, he was already facing pressure in Hollywood for his alleged but unsubstantiated Communist affiliations, and he had left Warner Bros. Studios and formed his own production company.  His long association with Odets in the Group Theater led to his casting as Charlie Castle, which was directed by Strasburg.  A couple of years later he was blacklisted for refusing to name names during his testimony at the hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and while desperately trying to gain control of a faltering career, he died in New York in 1952. His participation in a show that was a condemnation of Hollywood likely did not help his standing there.  The play received mixed reviews – the positive ones were mostly due to Garfield’s performance.  For his part, Odets found himself criticized by those that felt his portrayal of Hollywood over-the-top harsh.  He was quoted as saying:  “I have nothing against Hollywood per se.  I do have something against a large set-up which destroys people and eats them up.  I chose Hollywood as the setting for The Big Knife because I know it.”  The play ran for 108 performances.

Robert Aldrich,
In 1955, when maverick director Aldrich decided to adapt the play to film, Garfield was already dead.  Aldrich, who hammered out a productive career in Hollywood as a director or assistant director in a variety of genres, earlier had joined on with Garfield’s production company endeavors in the 1940s, sharing his progressive values and the desire to hold off the power of the big studio system.  Aldrich’s directorial career took off with Westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, and he decided to form his own production company ‘The Associates and Aldrich’.  He made the lauded Kiss Me Deadly, which was part noir and part nuclear apocalyptic warning. Then came The Big Knife, which no doubt would not have been made by any major studio.  Aldrich had a hand in adapting the play for the screen, and the screenwriting credit went to James Poe; the result stayed generally faithful to the play.

John Garfield and Shelley Winters
in He Ran All The Way (from
In place of Garfield was Jack Palance as Charlie Castle.  While perhaps not an obvious choice, Palance cut an imposing and handsome figure.  Ida Lupino, already a director in her own right, was cast as Marion Castle.  Lupino had been close to Garfield, and was personally persuaded to take on the role by Aldrich.  After reviewing the script, she wrote to Aldrich saying some of her lines were such that she envisioned herself saying them to Garfield.  Playing the studio head, Stanley (changed from Marcus) Hoff was Rod Steiger.  Also in the cast were Jean Hagen, Wendell Corey, Everett Sloane, and Wesley Addy.  In a small but critical role as starlet Dixie Evans was Shelley Winters, a close associate of Garfield, who starred with him in his last film He Ran All The WayWinters dedicated her performance to him.  Efficiently shot by Aldrich’s company on a $423,000 budget and within about two weeks, upon release by United Artists it didn’t win a large audience, nor did it expect to.  

Ida Lupino and Jack Palance in The Big Knife
This cynicism coming through the film is not subtle.  The character of studio head Hoff, is portrayed by Steiger is an egomaniac who indulges a dangerous temper, beats up young starlets, and condones murder in the name of keeping the studio reputation intact.  Steiger’s performance has been criticized, and he definitely takes the opportunity to satirize the figure of the tyrannical studio head by his bluster.  At one point, Castle says to him, “The embroidery of your speech is completely out of proportion to anything you have to say.”  Steiger even reminded me, in some of his line readings, of Marlon Brando’s mob boss Don Corleone in The Godfather. I wonder if Steiger influenced Brando in any way for this later film.  Considering the two actors had associations with the ‘method’ system of acting (coming out of the Group Theater tradition) and had worked together in On The Waterfront, I suspect this is possible.  Regardless, Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn took this portrayal personally and made life difficult for Aldrich afterward.
Rod Steiger throwing a tantrum in The Big Knife
Other characters are 'typed' and exaggerated as well. There is the portrayal of the ‘studio fixer’ in the character of Coy, played icily by Wendell Corey, willing to do the studio dirty work.  Innocent young starlets are pushed into prostitution on behalf of the studio, and agents are sniveling, powerless small men.  There is even the character of the ruthless gossip columnist, who hounds stars and threatens them just to get the scoop.  The portrayal of ‘Patty Benedict’ by Ilka Chase, although infused with some dignity, was likely a dig at Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons, who wielded considerable power in Hollywood.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the script takes the opportunity to praise the Group Theater & Mercury Theater in contrast to studio politics.   
Shelley Winters tied up in a telephone line on the dance floor
Palance embodies the virility and charm of Castle, and with his affinity to fly into tempers at small provocation, we sense he’s a man with a deep despondency.  He also paces, sweats and trembles throughout the film.  While Lupino portrayed well the devotion of Marion to her husband, and her ultimate ability to forgive his faults, for me she lacked what I believe the character must have had, which was an edge.  However, her final scene holds tremendous power, and it gave Lupino a chill as well.  In fact, as stated in her bio by William Donati, she claimed that every scene was heartrending to film, when she reflected on Garfield and the similarity between his ‘persecuted end’ and the downfall of Castle.

The film makes good use of style -- the set design looks sterile but appropriate as the interior of a home for a star in the 1950s, and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo plays in black-and-white with odd camera angles and sudden close-ups to keep the audience feeling uncomfortable.  The sound design employed effects such as snare drum rolls at critical times to ratchet up the tension.  The script itself included some cynicism through sarcasm, nowhere more evident than in the opening voice-over narration: “Failure is not permitted here.”  The juxtaposition of upbeat music with the ominous language, both here and in the final scene, underscore this cynical attitude.
Jack Palance and Everett Sloane
From the opening credits, Jack Palance behind a web
As a film, The Big Knife will never have the popularity or audience of a Sunset Boulevard, for example; it’s too dark, too unrelenting, and in some ways, too preachy.  The film takes pains to show Hollywood as a house of horrors – not a place that can’t be escaped, but rather one that requires extraordinary character and will to do so.  All involved were acutely aware of, and some grieving, the premature loss of John Garfield.  The additional pressure of the blacklist and the postwar cultural angst made for added challenge, and made life difficult for stars like Garfield who worked to maintain integrity.  The message that Hollywood isn’t just about glitz and glamour, or even art, is an important one, even as we classic film enthusiasts in the 21st century find tremendous enjoyment from the products of the studio system.


Donati, William, Ida Lupino, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1996.Miller, Gabriel, Clifford Odets, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.
Lund, Carson, Essay on Robert Aldrich for the Harvard Film Archive, 2016:
Murray, Edward, Clifford Odets, the Thirties and After, Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1968.
Odets, Clifford, The Big Knife, Random House, New York, 1949.
Stafford, Jeff. online article The Big Knife.
Reminder to check out all entries in our blogathon here!

Monday, October 10, 2016

On two film adaptations of Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'

"Three. Seven. Ace....Three.  Seven. Ace."  

If you want thrills and chills this October with a healthy gothic dose, do not overlook Alexander Pushkin's 1834 story of greed gone berserk, literally.  The Queen of Spades lodged permanently in my subconscious after, as a young child, I saw a revealing snippet of the 1949 British film on TV (not knowing exactly what it was, but hearing the movie's title from my Dad, who was giving it rapt attention).  The shock value was off the charts for an 8-year old, and I've only recently had the guts to approach this story again.  What prompted me was the opportunity to see a live screening of the 1916 Russian silent film version a month ago at the Harvard Film Archive.  After that, I watched the 1949 version in its entirety, read the original story, and watched portions of the famous 1887 operatic version by Tchaikovsky.  This post shares some of my observations about the story on film.

The basic outline of the plot is as follows:  In Imperial Russia in the early 19th century, Hermann, an officer in the Russian engineers, is of a lower class than his military compatriots who spend their off hours gambling at cards, in particular, faro.  Hermann avoids the card games because he doesn't want to risk what little he has, but he's fascinated nonetheless.  He hears one officer tell a story of the 'Countess', an old lady now who in her youth won a fortune by learning a 'secret' of cards from a mysterious acquaintance -- a secret no one speaks of and seems to have dissolved into a questionable legend.  Hermann becomes obsessed with learning the secret, to the extent that he insinuates himself into the acquaintance of the old Countess's demure but beautiful ward Lizaveta.  Eventually he confronts the Countess in a fateful encounter, and in the course of subsequent critical and supernatural happenings believes he's got the secret, and acts on it.  The results are not happy.

1916 Film The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) D. Yakov Protazanov.
As the date indicates, this film was made immediately prior to the Bolshevik revolution, and I couldn't help imagining a reflection of class consciousness and critique of the elite played up in the drama of the film.  At 63 minutes, the film was an efficient and true telling of the Pushkin story.
From Harvard Film Archive:  Ivan Mozzhukhin standing at right as Hermann
For a relatively early silent, the supernatural effects were, if not refined, at least intriguing, and the storytelling making use of flashbacks to add interest.  The camera was mostly static, not showing the 'montage' style famous in later Russian/Soviet silent cinema. The character of Hermann as portrayed by Ivan Mozzhukhin, while not admirable, is more as a victim of his addictive personality, as opposed to a cunning villain.  For his part, Mozzhukhin was a very popular Russian actor, who barely escaped with his life during the revolution, and worked mainly in Western Europe thereafter, and had a short unsuccessful stint in Hollywood.
Hermann caught in an imaginary spider web
The entire film can be seen on Youtube:

The 1949 film The Queen of Spades D. Thorold Dickinson
The film that spooked me so many years ago is one Martin Scorsese has called 'a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the 1940s.'  Made at England's Welwyn Studios, it's gripping and haunting, with gothic beauty and tragedy dripping from every frame.  Similar to the 1916 film, it was quite faithful to the original story.  I was simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Anton Walbrook's Hermann.  In contrast to that of Mozzhokhin, his portrayal was of a truly subversively haughty and vile person, who cannot resist the lure of wealth, and does not value human relationships.  While I felt he overplayed at times, he was mesmerizing and the camera idolized him.  Yvonne Mitchell portrays Lizaveta as a beautiful, if weak, young woman who lets others rule her life.  Dame Edith Evans is convincing as a bitter old woman who has found that wealth does not make up for the lack of love and true companionship.  Just over 60 when the film was made, Evans was made up to look much older.
Anton Walbrook cuts a dashing figure as
Hermann, if cold and not particularly sympathetic.
Dame Edith Evans as Countess Ranevskaya
The scene that I remembered from my childhood, set at the Countess's funeral, did not disappoint this time around, for its ability to shock and chill.  The story is unique in that it offers no strong protagonists worthy of our admiration, if you discount the secondary character of Andrei, the young officer in love with Lizaveta played by Ronald Howard, son of legendary Leslie Howard of Gone With The Wind fame.  As entertainment, the film offers a bit of everything; supernatural and elements of horror are neatly included in the dramatic narrative and will satisfy fans of the genre.  As social commentary there is much to digest as well, which likely is at least partly why Pushkin's original story has such staying power.  This is a society that today one is glad to have avoided.  New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said it well in his inimitable style at the time the film had its U.S. run:  "Wild gypsy dancing, shadow lighting, and an excellent musical score are well used for mood creation in this weirdly fascinating film."  
Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta
Anton Walbrook as Hermann woos Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta.
As a postscript, the Tchaikovsky opera presents the original story with several deviations in the narrative to appeal to operatic audiences, who demanded more romance, and more death (!).  It does not lack for dramatics, and the music is romantic; it's still popular today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Spooooky October Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

Now that we're well into fall, it's time to think about seeing some scary movies on the big screen, classic style.  Luckily, if you live in Boston you have many options to get your fright fix.  Get out your calendar and mark it up with these:

Coolidge Corner Theater
Thurs Oct 27:  Two years ago, I had the privilege of seeing the classic silent film Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney in the title role, at the Coolidge, with the world premier score composed and performed live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra based at Boston's Berklee School of Music.  I've written before about the special one-of-a-kind relationship between the Berklee School of Music film scoring department and the Coolidge.    On October 27th is a repeat performance of this film with the live Berklee score -- if you haven't seen it you absolutely must.  A special part of the score is an actual soprano vocalizing as part of the orchestration, to create an eerie experience, almost if you're in the audience at the opera!
Lon Chaney & Mary Philbin star (from
Mon Oct 31: Jumping ahead several decades, the Coolidge is presenting, on Halloween night, a double feature of Hitchcock's horror/thriller Psycho (1960) in 35 mm, followed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), "perhaps the most frightening film ever made."  These special screenings are part of the "Big Screen Classics" series.

Mon Oct 10:  This one is a don't miss, The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer, released in 1962.  It's a powerful surrealist and darkly comedic trip through international political intrigue and dysfunctional family dynamics, and with its study of subversive forces in politics, it's speaks to our time in some ways.  Terrifically acted by Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra and others.  It was a thrill for me to see this for the first time at the 2016 TCM Film Festival with Angela Lansbury present to share her experiences making the film.
Angela Lansbury & Laurence Harvey
Brattle Theatre
Not to be outdone, the Brattle is presenting must-see classics of spooky cinema on Halloween weekend:

Sun Oct 30
Nosferatu (1922) tells the Dracula legend in FW Murnau's classic silent film, and will be screened along with live music by the Andrew Alden Ensemble.  I'm not familiar with this group, but they have ties to the Berklee School of Music Film scoring department, as Mr. Alden himself is a graduate.  He lives now in Rochester, NY, and his group of professional musicians performs in New England and New York to silent films, among other gigs.  Their new score for Nosferatu sounds like it shares more modern, electronic elements that we are familiar with from the Alloy Orchestra, which is also originally from Boston.
Max Schreck as the 'undead' in Nosferatu
Mon Oct 31The Bride of Frankenstein (1933) this 35mm screening is free! Director James Whale reunited Colin Clive and Boris Karloff from his Frankenstein (1931) and brings in Elsa Lanchester to be the 'bride.'  This is highly satisfying and entertaining film, which served as an inspiration to the parody Young Frankenstein from director Mel Brooks starring the late Gene Wilder.

While not specifically spooky-themed films, some of the programming of the Harvard Film Archive and the Somerville Theatre deserves mention:

Harvard Film Archive
Marlen Khutsiev
The HFA is running special retrospective series with films from Russian director Marlen Khutsiev, the "unsung master of the modern cinema."  I will admit to being completing unfamiliar with his films, but with him appearing in person, at age 91, at the HFA for screenings on October 9 and 10, this might be really cool.

Continuing the theme of Russian cinema, several offerings in the HFA series on Russian and Soviet Film "Beyond Potemkin" look intriguing.  This series provides an opportunity to see some films on the big screen that may never come around again.  Included are:

Sun, Oct 16: Bed and Sofa (1927, Dir Abram Room).
Sun Oct 23, 5 PMThe House on Trubnaya Square (1928, Dir. Boris Barnet), with live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
Sun Oct 23, 7PM Outskirts (1933, Dir Boris Barnet), an acclaimed WWI film.

Virginia Mayo
Somerville Theatre
The Somerville's classic big screen offerings in October are a pleasing blend of silent adventure, drama, comedy, mystery and noir.
Sun Oct 2:  Silents Please The Mark of Zorro (1920, Dir. Fred Niblo), with Douglas Fairbanks at his peak.
Wed Oct 5:  I love the combination here: a special double feature of The Thin Man (1934, Dir. W.S. Van Dyke) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962, Dir. Fred Nelson, written by Rod Serling).
Sun Oct 23:  A Virginia Mayo Double feature of White Heat (1949, Dir. Raoul Walsh) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947, Dir. Norman Z. McLeod).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Answering fun film questions -- Liebster Award Edition!

If random but revealing observations from a movie fan will entertain you for fifteen minutes of your time, then please keep reading.  For anyone who is reading this I strongly encourage you to leave one or more comments in the comments section, and anyone who wishes, consider yourself tagged!
First, thank you!! to my new blogging friend Hamlette from Hamlette's Soliloquy for tagging me with the 'Liebster Award'.  This blogging award challenges me to answer 11 questions about my movie passions.  Alright, let's go!

1.  Is there a movie that has really yummy-looking food in it that you'd love to eat?
Well, I can eat anytime and anyplace, so there are very few movie meals that don't look good to me!  That said, I have to perhaps go with something obvious:  the meal in BABETTE'S FEAST (1987).  This is a lovely quiet Danish film about two unmarried sisters in a remote 19th century Danish village who take in a French expatriate down on her luck to be their servant. It turns out she is a gourmet chef and in the final scenes of the film, she prepares a meal that all the villagers will never forget.  The irony is that they have no idea what they're eating!
This is just the first course!
One of the most memorable scenes in the film for me was when a French opera singer comes to give lessons to one of the sisters in her younger years, and the two have a connection while singing Mozart's luscious duet 'La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni (in French).  The singer was portrayed by actual opera star Jean-Philippe Lafont. Below is the scene from the film .  I can remember when this film came out, rewinding and watching this scene over and over on my poor VHS tape.  
2.  What era do most of your favorite movies take place in?
Oh my gosh, this is a tough one, as my favorite films span many decades. If I think about those classic films that I recommend to people, probably more of them are set in the 1930s than any other single decade.  So much art deco loveliness, and class comedies, screwball comedies, and melodramas.  Think MY MAN GODFREY, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, UNION DEPOT.

3. What two actors/actresses have you always hoped would make a movie together, but didn't/haven't yet?
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in 'Downton Abbey' would give George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in ALL ABOUT EVE a run for his money in the snark department.  Both of these British actors dominated the big and small screen whenever they appeared and I would have loved to see them co-star in a film.

4.  If money, time, and supplies (and crafting ability) were not considerations, what movie character would you love to cosplay or dress up like for Halloween?
One rarely gets a chance to dress like a 18th century French queen, and so why not take the opportunity to be the center of attention by being Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette in the lavish 1938 production?  If as a bonus Ty Power becomes infatuated with you, I would probably never take that outfit off.
Wondering how much that headdress weighs!
5.  Have you ever cosplayed or dressed up like a movie or TV character for Halloween?  
OK, once in graduate school I dressed up as Winnie the Pooh.  (Yeah, OK, it's lame.)  Dressing up isn't really my thing, and because Halloween usually falls during the World Series I've been known to impersonate my favorite baseball player.  This year it might have to be David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, the Red Sox slugger who is retiring after this season.
Good excuse to post a Big Papi pic, right here.
6.  What movie would your family/friends be surprised to learn you truly enjoyed?
My family and friends have been trained to expect any number of varied film recommendations from me.  From Russian silent films to modern Westerns, I enjoy so many.  I'm not a huge fan of Action/Sci Fi blend pictures, so perhaps it might be a surprise that I enjoyed BLADE RUNNER.  Then again, it's been seen as a Western in disguise, young Harrison Ford is in it (woo!), and now it's considered a classic of sorts, so I suppose wouldn't be a complete surprise that I loved it.  I probably can cite many more films that others loved and I didn't (I sense a new topic for a blog post!).

7.  What's one book you hope no one ever makes into a film?
I think most any good book, in the hands of the right director and production, could a good movie make.  I think the question is more about what book do I love so much that I would hate to have my own imagining of the tale ruined by assigning a real production to it.  As a child I adored the 'Little House' books and hated how the TV series distorted that universe.  The illustrator, Garth Williams, was so good in capturing the mood of Ingalls Wilder's text, that I would have a hard time appreciating a film version even if the story was not altered.  That said, I might enjoy a biopic about Laura Ingalls Wilder, or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, both of whom had very interesting lives.
Garth Williams' illustration of 'Pa' fiddling for his daughters Laura and Mary
in Little House in the Big Woods.
8.  Do you know the Wilhelm Scream when you hear it?  Google is my friend.  The Wilhelm Scream is new to me.  So, the answer to this question WAS: no.  I'm feeling a little sheepish here.  However, believe me, I'll be sensitized to this for ever and ever, you can bet on it.  In the comments section, please let me know what your most memorable 'Wilhelm Scream' is -- I will learn from you!

9.  When a character onscreen has to hold their breath, do you try to hold your breath to match theirs?  I honestly can't remember ever doing this.  However, I suppose one can do it completely unawares!  I believe my breath was coming raggedly for the entire 92-minute running time of the ultra-suspenseful Western, the original 3:10 TO YUMA, and especially in the scene in the hotel where Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are holed up together.  If you've never seen it, watch watch watch!
Van Heflin tries to keep Glenn Ford at bay during 3:10 TO YUMA
I haven't yet seen the remake, but I can almost guarantee: it isn't better.
10.  What upcoming movies (or TV series) are you excited about?
Speaking about remakes, I just read in the Boston Globe here about the upcoming release of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN -- a 2016 remake with Denzel Washington and other assorted modern stars.  While advance reviews have been mixed, I am excited about this for the sheer fact that it may make people who haven't watched the original film, or the earlier Japanese film it's based on (SEVEN SAMURAI by Kurosawa) discover these films and become classic film lovers themselves.   What may be most fascinating is Peter Sarsgaard as the villain.  Check out the trailer below.  (In the comments section -- who wants to see this, and who wants to avoid it like the proverbial plague??)

11.  What are your favorite movie blogs?  I've listed these in my 'Recommended sites and blogs' list on the lower right side of my blog home page, but I want to also call out the wonderful writers at two of my local cinemas: Brattle Blog and Harvard Film Archive series pages -- check out the latest here about Russian Silent cinema.

So, I will ask anyone who is interested to answer one or more of the questions below, either in the comments section or as a separate post.
1. Who was your first movie crush that you can remember?
2. Who is your current or most recent movie crush?
3. Is there a film you refuse to see?  If yes, why.
4. If you could travel back in time to visit the set of one of your favorite films and tell the director in real time to change something, what would it be?
5. What is a comedy that most everyone loves and that you don't find the least bit funny?
6. What is the classic film stereotype that you hate the most?
7.  How do you attempt to debunk said stereotype?
8. Provide a link to one blog post that you really enjoyed and think others would, too.
9. Name a film director that should be better known, and your favorite film of theirs.
10. What upcoming film or TV series are *you* most excited about?
11.  What keeps you motivated to continue blogging?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Highlights from Capitolfest 2016

For the second time in three years, on a muggy August weekend I made a road trip to Rome, New York to attend the very unique classic film festival known as 'Capitolfest', after the Capitol Theater, the old movie palace downtown playing host to the event.  The festival's tag line is "a vacation, not a marathon!" Well, with just two and a half days to watch over two dozen movies, and with assorted special presentations mixed in, if that doesn't meet the criteria for a marathon, I'm not sure I share the same working definition of the word. That said, here in Rome the experience was relaxed, and lacked major downsides of bigger festivals, such as rushing from one theater to another, standing in lines, fighting to secure a seat in smaller venues, and choosing between eating and seeing a film.  Here, it was also a great pleasure to spend many hours exploring film history in the presence of other classic film enthusiasts and in such an historic place.
The Capitol Theatre on W. Dominick St.. in Rome, NY
This was the 14th annual edition of the film festival, and it is one of the most unique around, because it concentrates on hard-to-find films from the silent and early talking era.  (This is NOT a greatest hits parade of classic film.)  Yet, festival organizers, led by Art Pierce, theatre Executive Director, and Assistant Manager Jack Theakston, look at the critical reviews of the time and ensure they are generally positive before choosing a film to screen at Capitolfest.  The films are often coming off restoration projects by the George Eastman House & Museum or the Library of Congress, and many haven't been seen since their original run in the 1920s or 30s.  The festival also includes special presentations highlighting developments in film history.  Tremendously affordable, a weekend pass (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) will put you out exactly $60. 
Interior view of the Capitol Theatre, from
About half the films screened are from the silent era, and accompanying them live on their original restored theater organ, were musicians Dr. Philip C. Carli, Avery Tunningley, and Bernie Anderson.  And in the 'can it GET any better?' category, the 'featured star' this year was Gary Cooper, who was at his most smoldering and attractive early in his career. 
Young Gary Cooper -- it may not get any better than this, folks.
The FilmsAs a relative newbie to film history appreciation, I really enjoyed the special presentations of the Dawn of Technicolor, by James Layton, and a sampling of Edison Kinetoscope shorts (with recorded soundtracks) from 1913, presented by George Willeman, .... these proving that color film didn't just emerge in the late thirties, or that sound films didn't just magically appear in 1927.  Film history is much more complicated, with trials, errors, hard work, and more trials.  I also wonder what the stars of those 1913 shorts would think if they knew, 103 years later, that live audiences would re-discover their work.

I'm proud to say I saw every film presented at the festival (!)  While I can't claim I was completely awake for every last minute of them, I was there.  The late film on Friday evening was the sci-fi-adventure-comedy mash-up JUST IMAGINE (1930), which could have garnered the award for oddest film possibly ever made in the 1930s.  With it's look at what life might be like in the (gasp) 1980s (!) we all had fun with this one wondering what the heck was going on and I'm sure festival organizers did too.
The cast of JUST IMAGINE.  Yeah, most of us didn't quite get this one, either.
My favorite films were, in no particular order:

Beautiful  Florence Vidor
DOOMSDAY (Rowland Lee, 1928) opened the festival on Friday at 11:30 AM.  A silent love triangle set in England with Cooper as the lower class rival for Florence Vidor's hand.  While she loves him she balks at the hard farm work she'd be required to do.  Complications ensue.  Despite the somewhat anti-feminist themes in the film, I enjoyed it because it was my first exposure to Florence Vidor, and she was a fascinating, strong actress who was a good match for Cooper.  Her career was launched thanks to her husband, director King Vidor, who cast her in many of the films he produced in the era.  She eventually divorced him, and retired from films at the end of the silent era.  She also later married violinist Jascha Heifetz. 

WOLF SONG (Victor Fleming 1929):  This was the concluding film of the festival, a silent Western melodrama directed by Victor Fleming with a script written by John Farrow.  Cooper plays a rugged 'mountain man' who in his travels meets and falls in love with beautiful Mexican ingĂ©nue Lupe Velez. The struggle to maintain their relationship in face of Cooper's character's reluctance to be tied down creates the primary drama.  This one had terrific acting by the leads, and solid support comes from Louis Wolheim as his sidekick.  What distinguished this film for me was the emotional resonance and the final payoff, when Cooper had to literally crawl on his knees back to his love to gain her forgiveness.  It was working on this film that Cooper and Velez started a romantic relationship that lasted a few years.  Their chemistry in the film oozes from the screen. 

DUDE RANCH (Frank Tuttle, 1931)-- This was a farce in which enterprising business owners run a fake 'Dude Ranch' as a tourist attraction. The trouble?  Not enough going on threatens business.  So they hire a family of traveling circus performers to impersonate cowboys to liven things up with horses, gunfights and the like.  This showcases the comic skill of Jack Oakie who was in his element here with his double takes and 'aw shucks' charm-oozing persona.  Eugene Pallette is also tremendously entertaining with and also despite his totally un-PC act as a Native American.  Great example of verbal and physical comedy at a breakneck pace. I'd love to see this movie discussed in TCM's Slapstick course! 

THE POOR RICH (Edward Sedgwick, 1934):  Another rousing comedy with some of the best character actors to grace the screen in the 1930s, or any era. The cast is composed of Edna May Oliver, Edward Everett Horton, Andy Devine, Thelma Todd, Una O'Connor, Leila Hyams and Grant Mitchell.  All contribute in what is a master class of comic timing, both verbal and physical.  The plot concerns a brother and sister (Oliver and Horton), late of the landed upper class but now completely destitute, who return to their family home in ruins, and attempt to try to rebuild while keeping up the ruse of their class for important and class-conscious visitors.  My only complaint with this one was Thelma Todd has too little to do and didn't get to showcase her natural ebullience as a comedienne.

Honorable Mention:  THE TEXAN, also with Cooper, and the short silent drama starring Norma Talmadge called UNDER THE DAISIES

The Extras
A huge 'dealers room' in a neighboring space provided much browsing pleasure.  Original film stills and magazines in great shape, hundreds of books on film at low prices, and DVDs galore, added to the vintage feel of the festival, and I must say I enhanced my collection just a bit :

Making the festival for me was the opportunity to get to know some new film friends, some of whom I met at the Turner Classic Film Festival, and others only online.   They inspire me with their passion, knowledge, and ability to express their love for film across multiple online platforms. 

A few blogged about their experience, and @classicmoviehub and @citizenscreen created a video log:

Check out these other first-person accounts from film friends:
Raquel Strecher's account

I'm already looking forward to Capitolfest 2017 in August 2017!  The featured star will be Fay Wray.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

After August delivered an abundance of classic film screening riches in the Boston area, with a bit of a chill in the air fast approaching, September is 'cooling down' on the number of options for cinephiles.  However, there are some exciting and notable offerings to report.

Somerville Theatre  -- Sept 16-24
The Somerville in Davis Square celebrates the start of fall with a Festival of screenings mostly devoted to the 70 mm format -- this includes both classic film in the era of epics shot originally on 70 mm, in addition to some more modern films adopted this format.  Films in this format are weightier, and in many cases offer more detail than even you'll see on your home Blu-Ray.  This is what makes these films ideal for big screens, as film-makers in the 1950s and 1960s learned, to compete with the increasing popularity of television.  Today, film-makers use this format to draw people to cinemas in the age of advancing home video technology and the proliferation of quality visual media offerings.
For those interested in attending most or all screenings, you can buy a festival pass for $200 (adult); individual features will cost $15.00 (The cost of making or restoring 70mm prints is higher than digital or 35 mm).  

Great classic & modern titles will be screened, including: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), BEN-HUR (1959), WEST SIDE STORY (1961), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), just to name a few.  I'm particularly excited to see THE WILD BUNCH (1969) on Monday Sept 19 & SPARTACUS (1960) on Saturday Sept 24.

Shockingly, both these well-regarded films have yet to be seen by me.  THE WILD BUNCH would continue my exploration of the Western film, and is directed by Sam Peckinpah and showcases aging classic actors known to apparently good effect:  William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and two personal favorites, Ben Johnson and Edmond O'Brien.  In a film that is more than mildly influenced by Vietnam War politics, if I can tolerate the violence, I'm sure I'll enjoy it.
SPARTACUS is a picture known for Kirk Douglas showing off his pecs, and more seriously defying the blacklist by hiring famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo back under his own name.  Stanley Kubrick directed this period epic, and if I load up on caffeine for the 3+ hour running time, I'm sure the 70mm presentation on the big screen will provide quite the experience, indeed.
The retrospective of the films of Rouben Mamoulian finishes up Friday Sept 2 with BLOOD AND SAND (1941) starting at 7PM and THE SONG OF SONGS (1933) to follow.  I'm thrilled to be attending these screenings. Again, neither film I've seen, but I did see the 1922 Valentino version of the famous tale of the ill-fated love triangle in 19th century Spain, which was nothing if not entertaining.  In the 1941 technicolor version we get three of the brightest and most gorgeous stars to feast our eyes on: Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth, and Linda Darnell.  The mise-en-scene created by Mamoulian is said to take on 'painterly dimensions' with masterful use of color and noir shadows (HFA website).
Rita Hayworth and Tyrone Power throw sparks in BLOOD AND SAND
Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi as lovers in the earlier BLOOD AND SAND
THE SONG OF SONGS is a lesser-known film made in the pre-code era (1933), and it stars Marlene Dietrich coming off of her apex with director Josef von Sternberg.  Here she apparently starts out as a naive young country girl but rapidly changes her character after getting involved with Brian Aherne. It seems to be an interesting melodrama with 'touches of humor.'  If I can stay awake I will definitely catch this one (in 35 mm)!
Brian Aherne & Marlene Dietrich in THE SONG OF SONGS
Coolidge Corner Theatre
The Coolidge is presenting their perennial favorite JAWS (1975) on Monday Sept 5 (Labor Day), which is a great choice of a date because I doubt anyone is planning to return to the beach after that date anyway(!).  It will no doubt be a fun crowd.
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schneider and Robert Shaw in JAWS
It's not my favorite Hitchcock, but it is for many and deserves a shout-out for Sunday Sept 25 -- REAR WINDOW (1954) screens in 35 mm film format at the Brattle.  Starring a mostly immobile James Stewart character and the lovely Grace Kelly playing amateur sleuth.  
Sat Sept 24 deserves special mention here as it is the first annual "Art House Theater Day" -- in which over 160 theaters around the country have joined on to take part in showcasing their role in "celebrating the legacy of independent theaters as advocates for cinema arts."  For participating theaters there will be special screenings and giveaways.  In the Boston area both the Coolidge and the Brattle are taking part.  The Brattle is even extending the celebration to 'Art House Theater Week' from Sept 16-24, for which their screening of REAR WINDOW is a part.  Sounds like the start of a great tradition.  

A final 'special mention' for New Englanders is the weekend Telluride-by-the-Sea film festival Sept 16-18 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  This quaint seaside town and its historic theater 'Music Hall' bring patrons a selection of 6 films that are screened at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado earlier in the month.  This is a lot of fun and a nice way to welcome in fall while seeing some newer films making the festival rounds -- highly recommended!