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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Classic Movies on the big screen in Greater Boston -- Jan 2017 edition

The 'musical' must be the theme for classic movies on the big screen to open 2017 in Greater Boston.
I don't normally feature the TCM/Fathom Events screenings of classic films on this blog, because they are a US-wide initiative, but this January 15th & 18th the screening of Singin' in the Rain deserves your consideration, first because it's a fabulous and fun movie, and secondly, it's Debbie Reynolds' break-out role.  May she rest in peace.  For those who haven't seen it, it's a musical from 1952 that tells the story of the development of the movies from silent to sound through the eyes of fictional cinema star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly).  There are great musical numbers and joy in nearly every scene -- and this coming from one who is not a big fan of Hollywood musicals.  It inspired, among others, the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist.

Use this link to pre-order tickets.  In the Greater Boston area the following theaters are participating:
Fenway 13 (Boston); Assembly 12 (Somerville); Revere Showcase Cinemas (Revere); Burlington 10 (Burlington); Lowell Showcase Cinemas (Lowell); Legacy Place (Dedham); Braintree 10 (Braintree); Patriot Place (Foxboro); Randolph Showcase (Randolph).

Speaking of musicals. at the HFA the 'Busby Berkeley Babylon' continues through much of January, perhaps an early sign that 2017 might be a good year after all!  There are too many to highlight all here, so definitely check out the link above for the complete listing.  For those new to Busby Berkeley, you must see the classics: 

Fri Jan 6th 9 PM42nd Street (1933) directed by Lloyd Bacon, an effort to "marry the dark, urban gangster picture with the spectacular, exhilarating musical", as described by Brittany Gravely of the HFA.  Screened using a 35 mm print.
Mon Jan 23rd, 7 PM:  For Me and My Gal (1942), with Gene Kelly in his film debut, and Judy Garland, when she was particularly vibrant.  This one was directed by Berkeley himself.
Garland & Kelly, For Me and My Gal
The lesser known films are also worth checking out as there are fewer opportunities to see them.  I'm particularly interested in:
Sat Jan 21, 7 PM: Whoopee (1930), which is the first ever film choreographed by Berkeley, featuring musical theater star Eddie Cantor.   
Sun Jan 22, 7 PM:  Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), also directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Berkeley regulars Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Glenda Farrell.

Monday, Jan 2 7:00 PM -- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg screens to open the 'Big Screen Classics' series at the Coolidge.  This French film from 1964 launched the career of Catherine Deneuve.  It's a drama/romance/musical by Jacques Demy in which all the dialogue is sung, like an opera (score by Michel Legrand).  Roger Ebert called it "a surprisingly effective film, touching and knowing, and, like Deneuve, ageless."  I've not seen it, but considering Monday is a holiday, I may go to my neighborhood theater and check it out, if I'm not at the Brattle for the Marx Bros. marathon (see below)!

I mentioned this last month, but starting tomorrow Jan 1 and going through Tuesday, is the Brattle's 'Marx Brothers' Marathon.'  For those inclined to binge-watching this would be the ultimate experience, as all are early-career pre-code Paramount productions, digital presentations of restored versions of these films.  The lineup tomorrow, starting at 12 noon, and going through util about 8:30 PM, are:  The CocoanutsAnimal CrackersMonkey BusinessHorse Feathers, and Duck Soup.  Then on Monday, Jan 2, a double feature of Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, then Tuesday it's a double feature of Horse Feathers and Monkey Business.  My favorite of these is Horse Feathers -- in which the brothers take over a college campus and wreak havoc, of course.  
Groucho Marx somehow is appointed the President of Huxley College
Sunday Jan 29: Then for something completely different, as part of the 'Cinema of the Occult' Repertory Series, it's Bell, Book and Candle (1958, Dir. Richard Quine).  I've not seen it, but with the big names James StewartKim NovakJack LemmonErnie Kovacs, and Elsa Lanchester, it should entertain, if nothing else.  

An advantage for the Boston-area cinephile is the proximity of local experts who can curate and illuminate these screenings -- for this particular series, each film will be introduced by scholars/writers Peter Bebergal, Pam Grossman, & Janaka Stucky.  

Tues Jan 31 Also in the series is Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps best known for his fabulous noir Out of the Past, and starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins.  I haven't seen this but looking at the film poster, with the statement ''most terrifying story the screen has ever told", it seems one must not miss it!  It's received an average rating of 7.6 on IMDb, which is pretty good for IMDb standards.  I need to see more films by Dana Andrews so this might be a good start for the year.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Saturday's Heroes: A college football 'dramedy' from 1937

Saturday's Heroes is an odd little film.  It's one of those that, if not for Turner Classic Movies, zero people living today would have ever seen, instead of the 20 that have.  I am one of those 20.  It was the first film showing on star Van Heflin's birthday lineup on TCM last Wednesday and while I didn't catch it live at 6:15 AM, the handy DVR saved it for me.  While there are a number of reasons it's odd, which I'll get to, it illustrates why watching old films is so fun for me -- it's a snapshot of another time, that, while having certain things in common with today (the obsession America has with football, and college football in particular), it's so quaint in showing all that is changed -- from the uniforms, the way the game is played, the press, and simply how Hollywood chose to portray American culture of the time.
College Football is serious business.
This film was released in 1937 by RKO Studios as clearly a 'B' picture, as demonstrated by its 60 minute running time and the use of relative as-of-yet unknown, Heflin, as the star.  Directed by journeyman Edward Killy, it tells the story of how Val Webster (Heflin), the star quarterback of fictional 'Calton U.', struggles with how universities abuse their players by underpaying them to make money off the sport, and ultimately takes a stand with the help of a sympathetic sports editor (Richard Lane) of the local paper.  There is also the requisite romance, on-again-off-again with lovely Marian Marsh, conveniently the daughter of Calton's head coach.

Frank Jenks as Dubrowsky
For a film that attempts to deal seriously with a serious subject, incorporating into the narrative no less than a suicide of a character, the tone is inexplicably lightened frequently by the use of a number of running gags:  1) The football star and the sports editor repeatedly threaten to knock each other out, and sometimes do; 2) Alliterative insults -- "why you dirty double crossing double dealing descendant of a dipsomaniac!"... "you pusillanimous piece of painted poison!" 3) The character of football pal Dubrowsky, portrayed by Frank Jenks, whose eye-popping mugs for the camera and an extended sequence making deluxe banana splits would seem spliced in from another movie if there weren't these other slapstick elements; 4) Silent comic and Buster Keaton pal Al St. John appearing as a slightly 'touched' water boy with a handle bar mustache.
Heflin & Al St. John discuss the big game.
Heflin, as usual, is reliably good and while a bit older (29) than a college student he has the build of a quarterback and looks comfortable in sports attire.  Marian Marsh doesn't have much more to do than wander in and out of scenes and spar with Heflin, while uttering lines like "I hope this means you aren't going to get into another mess!", but she's an agreeable and lovely presence with a certain degree of spunk. We know she and Heflin will eventually work things out.  Because, after all, she is willing to take a back seat to his career, and adjust his equipment (!)
Heflin & Marsh
The football scenes seem to be staged amateurishly, and guys on the field rib each other about their attire (Really? Does this happen?) while the game is on the line.  Considering the small town aesthetic of the film's scenarios, the camera panning over enormous crowds of fans in the stadium is disorienting. Ultimately the plot wraps up too nicely by Webster defecting to another university, by sheer force of personality convincing their administration to treat their players more honestly, and proves the value of that by coaching their team to win one game -- against his old team.  Somehow, no one from Calton U realizes he's even there, much less the driving force behind their defeat.
Heflin and Lane in one of their episodes of fisticuffs
The film was presumably meant to be a statement against these questionable practices.  And football was a topic of controversy as early as the 1930s, if not earlier.  As Frank Nugent pointed out in his NY Times review of the film, "College football pictures hardly ever vary by so much as one esthetic milligram in either plot or intellectual weight from year to year, and another thing which binds them together with a certain timelessness is the way all of them are tinged with a rather melancholy note of cynicism and disillusionment concerning college football. This probably means that there is some truth to the rumor that commercialism is rampant in the athletic departments of our higher educational institutions."
The stadium for the big game: Calton U. vs. Weston U.
All in all, this film succeeds at the most basic purpose of the movies -- to entertain.  It had a bit of everything: classic Americana, a romance, a point of view, and low-brow comedy with a happy ending wrapped up in a tidy hour.  Heflin labored for a few years at RKO at the beginning of his movie career, but according to his biographer (Derek Sculthorpe, Van Heflin: A Life in Film), became frustrated at the parts he was assigned in mostly B pictures, and took a break from film not long after Saturday's Heroes to go back on the stage -- playing Macaulay Connor in an extended run of  'The Philadelphia Story' opposite Katharine Hepburn and Joseph Cotten.  He eventually made it back to Hollywood, getting better and better parts until his stardom was secured.  Despite her auspicious beginning in the early 1930s, by Saturday's Heroes Marian Marsh's career years were behind her, as she drifted away from acting, making only the occasional appearance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

December Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

November turned out to be a much busier month than I had originally thought, and my blog output dropped off precipitously.  I fear December will be the same way, although my goal will be to pick up my game just a bit.  On to the main attraction, which features both holiday and non-holiday themed films to punctuate your cold days and evenings in the cinema this month.

The HFA is once again offering an intriguing blend of offerings.

Sunday Dec 4, 4:30 PM -- the theatre's 8th Annual 'Vintage Holiday Show' of short films 'from the HFA vault' celebrating all things holiday.  It's billed as 'family friendly' and is likely to be much better than your average walk down holiday nostalgia lane.  And, its total 96 minutes of running time is completely free! These films were originally part of the Boston Public Library's circulating collection.   If I didn't already have a commitment I would attend this -- something very different and sure to be a delight.  Included in the list of films, both animated and live action, are:

From 'A Figgy Duff Christmas' (HFA Website)

The Great Toy Robbery (Jeff Hale, 1963); Six Penguins (Asporoah Panov, 1973);  Max's Christmas (Michael Sporn, 1988); The Cop and the Anthem (Peter Mark Schifter, 1982); The Cherry Tree Carol (Gardner Compton, 1968); A Figgy Duff Christmas (William Gough, 1978); Animal's Best Friend (Hermina Tyrlova, 1973); A Charles Dickens Christmas: From the Pickwick Papers (John Barnes, 1958); The Night Before Christmas (John Wilson, 1968).

Busby Berkeley
'Busby Berkeley Babylon'
Busby Berkeley was a giant in early film musical choreography; his visuals are still stunning today.  He turned big musical numbers into dazzling kaleidoscope-like frenzies of costumes, props, and bodies, especially those of the female variety.  The HFA is presenting an extensive retrospective of Berkeley's films 'Busby Berkeley Babylon' during December and January.  It's worth your time to read the HFA write-up of Berkeley's life and career (did you know he spent some of his earlier years Boston area doing stage direction for the Somerville Stock Company?!), and descriptions of all the films.  Here are the ones that are most exciting to me:  

From 'Gold Diggers of 1933

Sunday December 11, 7 PM
.  King of Jazz (1930), a 'rediscovery' that I missed at Capitolfest in August, a 'lavish production' in 2-strip Technicolor, celebrating bandleader Paul Whiteman

Friday, December 16, 9 PM Dames (1934) starring pre-code superstars Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler.  It's apparently a celebration of sexuality only slightly veiled, flaunting the restrictions of the upcoming Production Code that would prohibit overt references to sex, among other sinful (!) activities.

Saturday, December 17th 7:00 PM Roman Scandals (1933, D. Frank Tuttle), a wild farcical romp through ancient Rome via an extended dream, starring Eddie Cantor, Gloria Stuart, and Edward Arnold.  It's known also for the 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' first film appearance of Lucille Ball as a 'Goldwyn Girl' with long blond locks.  I saw it at Capitolfest in 2014 and it was quite the experience.

Barbara Stanwyck giving Gary Cooper
More that he bargained for. 
Coolidge Corner Theatre
Monday, December 5, 7:00 PM: Barbara Stanwyck and a young, hot Gary Cooper in the classic screwball comedy Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. (I can't help but think of Jerry Lee Lewis whenever I hear the title of this movie!)  It's about a group of lexicographers and their collision with a high-spirited young woman mixed up with the mob.  I've not yet seen this film and unfortunately can't attend this screening, but otherwise I would most certainly be near the head of the queue for this one!  Adding to the fun is a special guest appearance -- Ben Zimmer, award-winning language columnist for the NY Times, will speak before the film about the science of studying slang, and how it's evolved over the decades.  A regular feature of the Coolidge's fun Science on Screen Series showcases expert speakers talking about an aspect of science related to the film in some way.  

Monday, December 12, 7:00 PM: Bogey & Bacall send sparks across the celluloid in one of their most heralded noirs -- The Big Sleep, screened in 35 mm as part of the Big Screen Classics Series.  The narrative of this film, also directed by Howard Hawks, is nearly impossible to follow, but heck, the plot's not the main pleasure of watching this one!
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall form an uneasy alliance in
The Big Sleep (photo from
Sunday, Dec 25 - Thurs Dec 29 (Christmas week) the Brattle is programming films of Kirk Douglas to celebrate his 100th birthday (actually on Dec 9).  Happy birthday, Kirk!
Check out the whole series, but if you are free on Dec 26th, check out a double feature of  'rarities' from 1951:  Detective Story, a noir directed by ace William Wyler; also starring William Bendix, Cathy O'Donnell, Eleanor Parker.  That's followed by Ace in the Hole, directed by Billy Wilder, and also starring Jan Sterling and Robert Arthur.

Sunday, January 1, and Monday January 2
:  While technically a new month, it deserves a mention here: ring in the New Year with the Marx Bros!  The Brattle's presenting a marathon of films from these pioneers of early film comedy, betting on once you see one, you can't stop until you've seen them all!  All are new restorations of the old favorites, all of which are the early, pre-code Paramount films, so if you attend the whole festival you'll see the style of the brothers evolve over a four year period, from The Cocoanuts (1929) to Duck Soup (1933).  My favorite of theirs is Horse Feathers, which I got to see at the 2016 Turner Classic Film Festival. 

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are up to no good in 'The Cocoanuts'

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Selections from my October Film Diary + Terrific new Streaming Service

Exploring the realm of the macabre and supernatural in film during October seems to be a ritual among classic movie fans.  It was great fun to join in this year, and while the horror genre is not my favorite, I'm highlighting some of my discoveries that span six-plus decades of film.

Island of Lost Souls (1932, D. Erle C. Kenton).  This is the first film version of the H.G. Wells story about a semi-mad scientist holed up on a remote island conducting experiments that turn animals into half-human hybrids.  (It was remade as The Island of Dr. Moreau twice in the later part of the 20th century.  Alas I've not seen either of these, but neither are considered classics.)  However, this earlier film is a fascinating early 'talkie' offering in the horror genre.   Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams star as the protagonists, and Bela Lugosi shows up in a small unrecognizable part after coming off his box office success as Dracula, but the major star, and the main reason one should watch this film, is Charles Laughton.  A terrific actor (and one-time director), he is deliciously diabolical as Dr. Moreau, but retains a human edge.  To my taste he doesn't overplay it. His dark hair and goatee really suit him.  I will say this one is decidedly not suitable for those sensitive to racist or sexist elements in their movie choices.  There is a detailed and fun review of this one at here (although Danny does not share my enthusiasm for Laughton's performance).  The DVD is on the Criterion Collection label.  The trailer is here:

The first appearance of 'the man' portrayed by
director Herk Harvey himself.
Carnival of Souls (1962, D. Herk Harvey).  Sticking with the 'souls' theme, a completely different film made three decades later, is a low-budget masterpiece.  I had not seen this until this past month, but learned that it's now a cult classic.  Made by Centron, a small outfit in my former hometown of Lawrence, KS. known primarily for industrial and educational productions, this was the director's and writer John Clifford's pet project while on vacation. They shot on a budget of some $30,000, and used location settings in and around Lawrence, including an organ factory I vaguely recall visiting as a child.  Harvey & company also resurrected a real abandoned carnival pavilion "Saltair" at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah -- thus giving the film its name.   Also available in a gorgeous blu-ray by Criterion, it's fantastically eerie and unsettling, kind of a cross between the Twilight Zone TV series and Night of the Living Dead.  It has a surreal air about it and all the characters are just a bit 'off.'  It appears most of the budget was spent on cinematography -- it's so beautiful and creative.  A great choice was the use of a single organ score to accompany the film.

The main character is Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), who survives a car that drove off a bridge, and decides to start a new life as a church organist in Utah.  Mysterious live and undead people pop into her life and make it very uncomfortable, for her and for us.  For the moment, you can watch the entire film on YouTube:

The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos), (1988, D. George Sluizer).  This is the first, Dutch/French, version of the story that George Sluizer directed, based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe. It was remade in an American version in 1993 with Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. I've not seen that one.  But I've read enough about it that I doubt I will anytime soon.  The original version is considered to be superior, and yes, it's fantastic.  A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, (Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege), are on vacation in France, driving through the countryside, when Saskia disappears at a gas station in broad daylight.  Her boyfriend, Rex, embarks on a three-year journey to find her, or at least find out what happened, when he encounters the perpetrator, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a seemingly normal family man with an extraordinarily macabre side.  This film plays with us almost from the beginning, with the jumps back and forth in time, and the fact that we know who the villain is, we just don't know Saskia's exact fate.  Rex and Raymond are on a collision course through most of the film's running time until the unsettling ending.  The thrills are mostly psychological, and its symbolism, both visually and in the script, make it required repeat viewing.  Be warned, though, if you are sensitive to disturbing depictions of the dark side of humanity, you may want to skip it.
Saskia and Rex, happily unaware what's to come.

Raymond, with Saskia in his sights.
The latter two of films were originally brought to my attention by the podcast 'Criterion Close-up', in which film aficionados Aaron West and Mark Hurne discuss films that are released on the Criterion home cinema label.  Criterion is a favorite of cinephiles for their high quality productions of the best films, and their packaging of the films along with unusually generous extras.  And this leads me to endorse a brand new streaming film service called 'Filmstruck'.  (Not a paid commercial endorsement here, but one out of enthusiasm for this service!)  It collects films from Criterion, along with those provided by Turner Classic Movies, into a smorgasbord of offerings of classic, modern, foreign, and arthouse films, along with commentary videos.  Take a look!  I've given up my Netflix membership in favor of this, as I choose to watch film in my spare time, and not episodic series, despite the quality of Netflix offerings in that space.  I was a beta-tester for Filmstruck, and am pleased to have a complimentary membership to the end of the year.  I will definitely renew.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

November Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

After the October feast of Halloween-inspired offerings, in November the local classic film screenings are a bit less abundant, but many are tantalizing nonetheless.  Here is my monthly run-down.  For those living in the area, or visiting, please support the local cinemas that provide us a unique experience seeing these older films in the way their original audiences did.

Before that, a quick shout-out to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, who brought back the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra for an encore performance of their new score to the famous 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera, along with the screening, on Oct 27th.  I so enjoyed this!

Somerville Theatre
Weds. Nov 2, 7:30 PM:  In a reminder that William Shatner had a movie career before Star Trek, the Somerville presents The Intruder (1962), from Roger Corman Productions.  I've not seen this one, but the theme is timely as it addresses racism in America, an issue that does not seem to be able to be effectively resolved, nor will it anytime soon.  This film addresses the issue of school integration in a Southern town, which was a hot topic at the time.  Shatner plays a visitor to the community with an agenda to block integration.  Bosley Crowther in the New York Times gave it a mediocre review, saying that it's "crudely fashioned from cliches and stereotypes."  But he goes on to say "it does break fertile ground in the area of integration that has not been opened on the screen."  Modern audiences must appreciate it more, as it currently sports a 7.8 rating on IMDb.  It was directed by Roger Corman from a script based on the novel from Charles Beaumont.

Mon., Nov 7, 7:30 PM:  The 1941 film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes is devastating, and brilliant.  I doubt this one draws sell out crowds today, and I commend the Somerville for screening it in 35 mm.  I'm planning to attend, as it co-stars one of my favorite forgotten actors, Herbert Marshall who did his best when working with director William Wyler, and the inimitable Bette Davis.  Wyler had been in a relationship with Davis, and had legendary battles with her on set, but she, by all accounts, won most of them.  It features Teresa Wright in her first major screen role, and Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, and Carl Benton Reid.  If you want to see a film in which each and every performance is tightly-drawn, nuanced, with a terrific script, this one won't disappoint.  It's about a turn of the century southern family undergoing a major internal power struggle over wealth and legacy.  Not a happy story, and with the exception of the opening scenes, it maintains a dark tone throughout, "grim and malignant" according to Bosley Crowther.  That said, it's fascinating and entertaining.  Go!
Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, and Bette Davis in The Little Foxes

Fri Nov 11, 7:30 PM and 9:45 PM:  A fun dose of 1950s teenage culture is presented in the double-feature screenings of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock, (1957).  Both feature huge stars of the time, James Dean, and Elvis Presley, who both came to sad, untimely ends.  But here they are in their prime, which is how, in my opinion, they should be remembered.   Both portray anxious, rebellious young men.  In the former, Dean plays a high school student who rebels mainly against his family and society, and in the latter Elvis is burgeoning musician who gets into trouble with the law, but then gets his big chance.  It's been years since I've seen 'Rebel' and with my appreciation of classic film, and the strong reputation today of Nicholas Ray, I may try to make it back to the Somerville for this one.  Jailhouse Rock is new to me, and I love me some 50s rockabilly, so if I can stay awake I would definitely stick around.  This one is known for the big set-piece around the Jailhouse Rock song.  Another sad side note, Elvis's leading lady in this film Judy Tyler was killed in a car wreck at age 24 just a few days after filming wrapped.  Apparently as a result Elvis refused to watch the complete film.
Check out the official trailer here:

Brattle Theatre
The Brattle has two series planned with intriguing names: "Bad Hombres and Nasty Women" (will Donald Trump show up??) and a celebration of Shakespeare called "The Bard Unbound -- Shakespeare on screen".  Fans of films from the classic era would enjoy the following in this series:

Thurs. Nov 3, 7:30 PM A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  Clint Eastwood got his start in this, the first in the 'spaghetti Western' trilogy by Italian director Sergio Leone, perhaps best known for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.  Leone was known for quick cutting between medium shots and extreme close-ups, and his bringing brutal violence to the western genre.  This film was on my list to watch during my "Western movie summer," but unfortunately I didn't get to it.  I won't see this screening, but would recommend it to fans of Eastwood and Westerns.  IMDb summarizes the plot as "A wandering gunfighter plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride, and revenge."  It's being screened in 35 mm, and showing in a double feature with the 1997 film Perdita Durango, starring Javier Bardem.

Sat. Nov 19, 12:30 PM: Henry V (1944). This is the version with illustrious Shakespeare interpreter Laurence Olivier.  Filmed in Technicolor and directed by Olivier himself, it is a faithful adaptation of the play.  Since at the end of this tale as told by the great master, Henry and England emerge from their war with the French victorious, the film version was partly funded by the British government to fuel positive morale in the public during WWII.  Showing here in a digital transfer.
Laurence Olivier as Henry V
Olivier as Richard III
Sat. Nov 19, 3:00 PM:  In a double bill with Henry V comes Richard III (1955).  Now here is a very different British monarch, controversially sketched by Shakespeare as a deformed villain, and who comes to a different end.  This film adaptation is also directed by and stars Laurence Olivier.  I've not seen it, but with a cast that also includes Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Stanley Baker, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Claire Bloom, British film royalty to be sure, it should not disappoint.  It's a British color film, also screening in a digital transfer.

Sun Nov 20, 7:00 PM:  The new 4k restoration of Orson Welles' adaptation of the Falstaff story Chimes at Midnight, is presented.  I had the opportunity to see this a few months ago at the Coolidge, and it's fantastic.  I previewed that screening here.  It is a bit hard to follow, if you don't speak Shakespearean English fluently, and the sound is famously off in parts, but it has the brilliance of Welles, both acting in a role he considered his favorite, and directing in black and white with his usual expressionistic flourishes. A handsome, roguish Keith Baxter has the lead, and Sir John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford all appear in critical roles.  It was not a critical success at the time it was released, but it's now considered in the top echelon of the Welles filmography.
Baxter and Welles in Chimes at Midnight

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.
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