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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

May Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

Restorations and eclecticism seem to be themes for classic film offerings in May.

Coolidge Corner Theatre
In my previous post, I highlighted the event that must not be missed, in The Sounds of Silents Program, Monday May 2 at 7:00 -- VARIETÉ (Dupont, 1925) with the live score in world premiere performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  This is a digital presentation of a newly restored print by the FW Murnau Foundation.

On Monday May 9 at 7:00 is the 1967 documentary DON'T LOOK BACK based on the life and music of Bob Dylan.  This is presented as part of the Coolidge's Cinema Jukebox program.

Another new restoration of Orson Welles's masterpiece CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965) screens on Monday May 16 at 7, part of the Big Screen Classics series.  This is a film I've never seen, and interestingly, this article in the Boston Globe reviewed a new book on Welles and singled out his film as a great one from his later period.  I will definitely try to get there for this.

On Monday May 23 at 7:00, also part of the Big Screen Classics program, we have the Gershwin musical FUNNY FACE (1957) starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.

Somerville Theatre

As part of their 'Silents, Please' series, the Somerville presents Clarence Badger's  PATHS TO PARADISE (1925) in 35 mm, starring Betty Compson on Sunday May 15 at 2 PM with live music by pianist Jeff Rapsis.  I haven't heard of this one before, but it earned a 7.2 rating on IMDb, and seems to be a comedy and crime-caper simultaneously.

The Brattle
For fans of John Williams, the Brattle is presenting a special series of films with scores by by the award-winning Boston-based composer, spanning most of his career through to the most recent STAR WARS film.  They are listed below:
May 11 7:00 and 9:30 PM -- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
May 12 at 7:00 PM-- FAMILY PLOT (Hitchcock) + THE KILLERS at 9:30 PM (1964)

Harvard Film Archive
The HFA is featuring a retrospective of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, also in collaboration with The Brattle in a series titled "Time and Place are Nonsense!" There are 20 films programmed in the series at HFA and Brattle starting May 13th. This director and his films are new to me, so I'll try to educate myself by attending at least a couple. Perhaps BRANDED TO KILL (1967), which is described as a fractured film noir, on Sunday May 15th at 7:00 PM.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

VARIETÉ: The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra & Coolidge Corner Theatre World Premiere Partnership

From the final scene of SUNRISE
On a Monday night in 2010, this budding classic film fan showed up at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for a screening in The Sounds of Silents ® program. I didn't know what I was in for, but the buzz in the sold-out crowd was energizing.  The film was SUNRISE, and the music consisted of a brand new score commissioned by the theatre, and composed, conducted, and performed by students from the Berklee School of Music Film Scoring program.  At the end of the film the crowd leapt to itscollective feet and cheered wildly; my heart was still pounding with the emotion of the final scene of the film. The theatrical experience I had at this screening is in my top five of all time, and I've attended most of the films in the program since.  As the latest Coolidge-Berklee commission is getting ready for its world premiere on May 2, I had the opportunity to speak with the program's co-founder, Dr. Martin (Marty) Norman, as well as attend a fascinating in-person 'master class' by Berklee's Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz, both of which illuminated the fascinating process of scoring and screening silent film for a modern cinema audience.
While 'The Sounds of Silents®' program was started in 2007 by Coolidge board member Dr. Norman, and Becki Norman, the collaboration with the the Berklee school started a few years later.  In our conversation, Dr. Norman first explained that the goal of the program for the Coolidge was simple: to present classic silent films in the way they were meant to be seen.  As a silent film aficionado for many years, Dr. Norman said "while there are great single musicians out there accompanying silent films, I've always felt that having an ensemble or orchestra, provided they have the right talent, enriches the theatrical experience of the film, and I make that a priority for the Coolidge."  He reached out to the Berklee school because, he said, it's a local university and just happens to possess the only undergraduate program in film scoring, with exceptional students from all over the world.  He found a willing partner in Emmy-nominated Mirowitz (go here for his website and bio).

To date, I believe I've only missed one of the so-far nine screenings with scores that have had their world premieres at the Coolidge from the now-named Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  They are branching out -- just last year they performed their score for F.W. Murnau's THE LAST LAUGH at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and performed their new score for NOSFERATU with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Halloween night.  Fortunately for those of us in the area, they continue their partnership with the Coolidge, at least in part because of the historic nature of the theatre, the educational experience for the students, and the educated and appreciative hometown audiences.
Prof. Mirowitz from
Berklee School of MusicWebsite

That brings us to May 2, 2016, when the BSFO will premiere at the Coolidge their new score for VARIETÉ (1925), recently restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. (I'm taking a red-eye flight back from the TCM Film Festival just to get back to Boston in time to attend).  This film was directed by E.A. Dupont, and stars Emil Jannings as a former trapeze artist turned carnival barker,who gets in trouble after falling for a much younger exotic dancer.  (Jannings was a celebrated silent film actor, who also is the star of THE LAST LAUGH, from FW Murnau, and THE LAST COMMAND by Von Sternberg, among others.)   In June, the BSFO will go on the road to perform their score for the 7:15 PM Friday evening (June 3) screening of the film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

On the evening of April 21st, Professor Mirowitz came to the Coolidge to deliver a 'master class' in silent film scoring, and shared fascinating insights about Berklee's process.  First, he explained that scoring a silent film requires so much work that he engages a team of six students each semester for the task.  The six students are chosen as the top student composers from over 400 film scoring majors at the Berklee.  The students meet for 15 weeks, and each student is assigned what roughly corresponds to a 'reel' of film.  Often Prof. Mirowitz develops the initial musical themes for the main characters or situations that occur in the film, and then students then compose with and around those themes to bring out the 'story' of the film.  As Prof. Mirowitz explained, he "knows the music works if it makes the story better.  We don't decorate the picture."  He shared his musical themes associated with the characters in the VARIETÉ:  Boss, the girl, the family, and the villain, which all were compelling to listen to on their own, but when combined in unique ways to bring out the drama, the result was sublime.  The students learn in class by critiquing each other's work during the semester, and create up to 12 revisions of each section before the score is finalized.  The process then of syncing the music with the film can be complicated, and a set of cuing techniques is used for the conductors.  In performance, each composer will conduct the orchestra for their composed segments and seamlessly transition the baton to the next composer.  [Watch the 12-minute fascinating documentary "Punches and Streamers", showing the technical challenges tackled by the BSFO in its collaboration with the Coolidge, for SAFETY LAST:]

Prof. Mirowitz mentioned that, when needed, sound effects to accompany the action (a salute, for example, with a whistle) are scored directly.  He mentioned that he learned from Carl Davis that Davis's orchestra usually just performs the effect live rather than writing it into the score.  "Why didn't I think of that?" he quipped.  At the end of this fascinating evening came a stunning piece of news: Kino Lorber has contracted with the BSFO to record their score for an upcoming DVD release of VARIETÉ, and has also bought the rights to their score for THE LAST LAUGH.  There is no other example known of a group of university students composing, performing, and recording scores to silent film.  But this is no ordinary group of college musicians -- elite, indeed.

BSFO rehearsing for SAFETY LAST
at the Coolidge (from the Emerson
College doumentary "Punches & Streamers")
I can't overstate the thrill of attending one of these screenings in my own neighborhood.  It's a true two-fer: you get a brilliant piece of new music in its first public performance along with classic work of cinema that is nearly 100 years old. I asked Dr. Norman the best way of supporting the program, and he encouraged communicating directly with the Coolidge with statements of appreciation, and any other way of spreading the word to build audiences for these screenings.

When comparing writing a score for a silent film vs. a modern one, Prof. Mirowitz said the bar is low for the former -- "anyone can use a movie to make music, but we aim to create the music to make the movie."  I expect on May 2nd the audience will understand exactly what Prof. Mirowitz meant.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Decisions, Decisions! 2016 Turner Classic Film Festival 2016 picks -- first cut

I'm excited to be attending my second Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood CA Apr 28-May 1, where in gorgeous sunny CA the game is to see how many films in dark theaters you can possibly cram in periods of approximately 16 hours at a clip.  Forget eating and sleeping.  Seriously, it's gonna be a blast.  The schedule, of course, induces angina in most classic film fans trying to choose among treasures.  And it's not just the films, but very special guests that will be on hand to introduce or discuss the films.   Everyone has very individual reasons for choosing the particular films they do.  Here are my picks and my reasons:

Thursday Evening  -- opening night early film
In 2013 my friend and I walked the red carpet and then bailed on that movie, FUNNY GIRL, to watch SOUTH PACIFIC instead by the pool at the Roosevelt Hotel. (I can admit that now). This year, the poolside movie is Harold Lloyd's THE FRESHMAN, which is intriguing. But I'm planning to see A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.  I've never seen it and it's a bona fide classic.  The other choices during the slot are: ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (good flick; but too recent, and yup, seen it), DARK VICTORY (wonderful Bette Davis but seen that recently) and ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO, which is considered a "Discovery," but I feel like starting with something a bit more conventional.

Thursday Evening -- late night slot: 
Assuming my jet lag isn't too bad I'll be up for another film and my choice is LOS TALLOS AMARGOS -- an Argentinian noir that the folks at TCM consider a "discovery".  Having received my film noir certificate last summer (!) I'm still eager to explore more in the genre.  Opposite this one is GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (good film, but seen it, and also seen a stage version fairly recently), and BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945 British film that sounds wonderful) Tough choice!

Friday Morning slots
The early slot has some wonderful films, including SHANGHAI EXPRESS and THE MORE THE MERRIER, but I've seen both recently, and I'm inclined to check out Ida Lupino's first film as a director, 9:30 NEVER FEAR in a restored version, a film new to me.  It also has the advantage of starting just wee bit later than some of the others (sleep is at a premium).

Ann Harding & William
For the late morning hour I truly can't decide between one of my favorite films, the Ann Harding/William Powell pre-code melodrama DOUBLE HARNESS, and HE RAN ALL THE WAY, a noir, and legend John Garfield's last film, which I've never seen.  Both films will have special guests with connections to the films to delight us with their stories.  I guess I will just have to wait to see what moves me more that morning.

Friday Afternoon slots
At 2:15 it absolutely has to be THE CONVERSATION with special guest director Francis Ford Coppola on hand.  As I love Gene Hackman, this will be the second most recently-made film I'll see at the festival--one which I've not had the pleasure of seeing yet.

At 5:15 will be the 1960 noir PRIVATE PROPERTY, in a restored version, a "discovery".  I hate to miss the classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but that one's not a fave and I prefer to watch it during the holiday season when I do watch it.

Friday Evening  slots
After a popcorn dinner I'll be ready to watch my first silent film of the festival, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, another lauded film that I haven't yet seen.  I am a fan of silent films on the big screen with live music -- such a terrific way to spend a couple of hours.  This one features accompaniment with orchestra & chorus!  Tempting is a poolside screening of BATMAN: THE MOVIE with Adam West -- talk about two very different cinema experiences!

Jumping ahead several decades, without at doubt the late movie has to be THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, to which I'll bring my molto grande coffee.  The great Angela Lansbury will be there, who I was thrilled to see at the Harvard Film Archive last year.  Here's an "essential" film that I need to see, and what an opportunity.

Saturday Morning slots
In the early morning I'll be seen at the  "90th anniversary of Vitaphone" presentation of seven vintage shorts from the early talking period of films.  They are newly restored, on 35mm.  I'll be missing out on BAMBI, ONE MAN'S JOURNEY (with Lionel Barrymore and Joel McCrea, which I saw recently) and FIELD OF DREAMS.

After a quick bite I'll be heading to DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID -- a spoof of film noir with Steve Martin that I've never seen, and it'll be especially fun to look out for cameos in the film by Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd, among others.  Made in 1982, this will be the most recent film I'll see.  I'll be sorry to miss A HOUSE DIVIDED, one of William Wyler's first films.

Saturday Afternoon
At 3:45 it's tempting to head to the pool for wine courtesy of the TCM wine club, as I may be vitamin D depleted by this point in the weekend.  But instead, I'm looking to go with the science fiction
choice, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS from 1953.  There'll be a discussion with Oscar winners associated with the film as well.  I'll be missing out on two classics from 1946, THE YEARLING, and THE BIG SLEEP.

Saturday Evening Slots  THE SONG OF BERNADETTE was one of the first films advertised by TCM to emphasize the film festival theme of 'Moving Pictures'.  It's one I've never seen, and I'm intrigued by it, and the performance of its star, Jennifer Jones, who won the Oscar that year.  It might be a bit treacly, but I'm willing to give it a shot.  Sister Rose Pacatte, who recently was a guest presenter on the network in March for the "Condemned" series, will be on hand to discuss this film.  I'll be foregoing THE LONG GOODBYE (I loved this one, but saw it at the Harvard Film Archive recently), and THE KING AND I (I may regret that, although musicals aren't my favorite).

The late film for me will be Jean-Luc Godard's  BAND OF OUTSIDERS, my second foreign film of the festival.  Claimed to be a dream like riff on American gangster pictures, it is said to have been a major influence on Quentin Tarantino.  I'll pass on ROCKY and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  The midnight show is GOG, from 1954 and includes Herbert Marshall in a supporting role, and if it were any time other than a midnight show, I would so be there.  I know my limits!

Sunday Morning
The early show on Sunday morning presents another unresolved dilemma -- for me it's either MASH or THE FALLEN IDOL.  The former is another classic that has eluded me, and will include star Elliott Gould in person.  THE FALLEN IDOL is a British film from Carol Reed, starring Ralph Richardson, based on a Graham Greene short story.  What's not to love?  We'll see what I choose.

Sunday Afternoon Slots
My second silent film of the festival will be Charlie Chaplin's newly restored classic, THE KID.  I just can't resist this one.  This competes with one of the 'TBD' slots in which a popular film from earlier is screened in a repeat performance.  Next, I can hang around the same screen for HORSE FEATHERS, which is probably my favorite Marx Brothers film.  This one features Groucho's musical number "I'm against it", and Chico entertaining lovely fiesty Thelma Todd with his unique piano talents.  I just don't think I'm up for OLD YELLER, which broke my heart as a kid.

Sunday Evening
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON might be my last film of the festival.  It suitably ends the festival for me as it's a John Ford western starring luminaries John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, and George O'Brien.  (I'd been binging on westerns lately, with Alan Ladd and Van Heflin figuring prominently).  Keith Carradine, son of John, will be making in person remarks to accompany this film.  And with that, the festival concludes for me.  There is some chance I'll make it to part of THE BAND WAGON, with Rita Moreno in person, but alas I need to catch a redeye flight back to Boston so we'll see how it goes.  I'm so excited to be heading back to the festival this year, and I'm looking forward to meeting several classic film enthusiasts and bloggers that I've only "met" online.   Safe travels to all heading to Hollywood!

Monday, April 11, 2016

WICKED WOMAN (1953) - what's the fuss about this B noir?

After having indulged in mostly classics lately, like SHANE, 3:10 TO YUMA, and RIFIFI, watching a decidedly B film from the early 50s resulted in a bit of a shock to the senses.  But I trusted Guy Maddin's advice and came away more than entertained.  The film was WICKED WOMAN directed by Russell Rouse in 1953, and it was screened April 10th at the Harvard Film Archive, as part of their Guy Maddin Presents series.

Platinum blonde Beverly Michaels stars, she of the apparently long B movie career playing tough but beautiful dames.  The role in this film is the one she is best known for.  She isn't a great actress, but uses everything she has to create a powerful screen presence here.  At 5'9" she towers over most of the other characters, except her leading man, Richard Egan.  She deliberately slinks and slithers her way around the camera, using her lean body to full advantage.  In fact the first shot of her features only the waist down.  She's as sultry as they come, and we know she's gonna stray from the straight and narrow, yet she projects enough vulnerability to win you over, and make you understand that she knows of no other way to survive.  As Guy Maddin says in his film notes for the series, "She's an amazing presence, the towering Michaels, who contrived for this el cheapo movie miracle a gliding, super-sensual gait not unlike the scudding of a just-surfaced submarine."  

First view of leading lady Beverly Michaels as she gets off a bus
The plot of the film is simple - a beautiful dame short on luck buses in to an unnamed town, takes up residence, and sets about conning the landlady and a particularly smitten neighbor into funding her attempts to land a job.  When she does, she becomes a waitress at a local blue collar bar owned by hunky bartender Richard Egan and his wife, who has a predilection for drink.  Our heroine seduces Egan and sets about planning their getaway.  The low budget film takes place mainly in three indoor sets -- the bar where our heroine works nights, and her small flophouse apartment, and the hallway in the apartment building.  Shorter scenes take place inside an office, a bus station, and the street in front of the flophouse. One surprise in this film is the passionate kissing scene between Michaels and Egan -- a complaint of mine in older films is that kisses more often than not are unconvincing.  This one just -- is.  
Beautiful "wicked woman" pleading for a job
Beverly Michaels and her vulnerability
Evelyn Scott as Dora
The tone honestly didn't seem 'noir' to me.  Rather, it was more like a cross between a seedy dark comedy and melodrama.  Despite this, the characters created by Michaels, her lover Egan, his trod-upon wife, played by Evelyn Scott, and leering neighbor-from-hell Percy Helton, are all compelling.  The direction by Rouse and hard boiled script by Rouse and Clarence Greene make this familiar story suspenseful nonetheless.  This film will never reach a wide audience, but is a reminder of how entertaining a low budget film can be given a decent script, director, actors, and a large dose of inventiveness.
Apparently WICKED WOMAN has a cult following among noir aficionados, including Eddie Muller.  Here are a couple of references that expand upon the pleasures and lessons to be gained from spending 77 minutes it its company:

Sunset Gun reviews the film at its Telluride screening in 2014 and focuses on its feminist underpinnings
Beverly meets Richard Egan

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Van Heflin: A Life in Film, by Derek Sculthorpe--Book Review

Van Heflin: A Life in Film, by Derek Sculthorpe. c. 2016 by McFarland & Company, Inc.
"Don't look back baby. Don't ever look back."
With these words to Lizabeth Scott at the end of  THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERSVan Heflin may have oddly foreshadowed how little information about him exists today, 45 years after his death.  And that's a shame.  As I discovered him in this film noir, and then the classic western SHANE, I began to believe the man could play anything.  It turns out he was good-looking and charismatic enough to land leading man roles, and quirky enough to assay villains, sidekicks, or desperate men.  His talents put him arguably in the top echelon of the purest actors of Hollywood's golden age. So I was thrilled to learn that a biography was just being published.  U.K.-based biographer, Derek Sculthorpe, an archives assistant and researcher, and a writer of plays, short stories, and articles, has done a tremendous service for film historians and old Hollywood enthusiasts in tackling the life and career of Heflin.

Heflin was born Emmett Evan Heflin Jr. in 1908 in Walters, Oklahoma.  After a turbulent childhood and a move to California, he enrolled in college in Oklahoma City but took time away to indulge his love for the sea and serve as a merchant sailor. After finishing his degree at Yale Drama School he embarked on a stage career.  By chance Katharine Hepburn saw him in a performance and encouraged him to try Hollywood, where in his first film, A WOMAN REBELS (1936), he played opposite Hepburn in an important secondary role.  He won his first and only Oscar for a supporting role in JOHNNY EAGER (1941), and his career began to gather steam.  He signed a contract with MGM that lasted through the 1940s, with a break for war service as a combat photographer. Returning to MGM, and unsatisfied with his opportunities he took to freelancing, landing multiple memorable roles in the 1950s and 1960s, including in SHANE, 3:10 TO YUMA, and his final film, AIRPORT (1970).  Heflin made over 2000 radio appearances as well.  He died in 1971 at just 62 years old. 

The first thing I did when my copy of the biography arrived was to open it to the very back to peruse the references.  I was not disappointed as I found a full 19 pages combining detailed notes for every chapter with an lengthy bibliography. [I perhaps should not have been surprised considering the publisher, McFarland & Company Inc., specializes in academic and non-fiction material.]  Sculthorpe uncovered every item that had been written about Heflin that could be found, from contemporary accounts and interviews, to more recent sources.  He tracked down some contemporaries, and watched every film.  Unfortunately, Sculthorpe was unable to make contact with Heflin's children or any other family members, and admitted this in the book's preface.  The result is a bio that is much heavier on the career than the personal life of Heflin.
Heflin with Katharine Hepburn in his
first film role in A WOMAN REBELS (1936)
At the outset though, we do get details of Heflin's early life. Sculthorpe highlights how his diverse experiences gave him an emotional honesty and an ability to assay a wide range of characters.  An early mentor, director Richard Boleslawski, apparently said Heflin was "a strange mixture of scholarly gentleman and two-fisted sailor."  Heflin's career choices are detailed along the way; one of Sculthorpe's conclusions is that Heflin was hampered by his contract with MGM -- the studio wasn't a good match, and when he finally exited there he had lost many good years.  Woven throughout each chapter are synopses of nearly every film Heflin made, with Sculthorpe's take on Heflin's contribution to each.  After a while, I found this a bit much and skimmed over some of these summaries.  However, if you didn't know that in 1943 Heflin played a romantic lead to Judy Garland, in a light comedic role in PRESENTING LILY MARS, this tidbit will come as a happy surprise.  From the few clips I've seen the film looks delightful.  I also started a list of many rather obscure films that I need to see:  B.F.s DAUGHTEREAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, and the Italian-made 5 BRANDED WOMEN are just a few. 

In a smaller role as Bar Amand in
Sculthorpe makes the choice to present his material in approximate chronological order with each chapter organized around a theme. At times, I found this confusing, as there were inevitable breaks in the logic of the chronology.  For example, in Chapter 8 "Freelancer (1950-1955) there was little discussion of SHANE, which Heflin made in 1951, but instead it was covered in Chapter 9 "Shane and After (1953-1959)."  Also, while understanding sources were limited, I was disappointed at the relative lack of information about Heflin's personal life.  Heflin was married (2nd time) for many years to Frances Neal, had three children, but sadly they divorced a few years before Heflin's death.  This experience seemed to have a negative effect on Heflin's physical and emotional health and there was a hint of a potential alcohol problem.  Reading, I wonder what was below the surface of the iceberg here.  And while we get a *sense* of his personality, it stops there.  There are conflicting reports that he was both beloved by his co-stars, and also considered 'difficult', or a scene-stealer.
Heflin with his wife Frances Neal and daughters Vana and Kate
We are left with a partial portrait of a very complex man and brilliant actor, who cared deeply about his craft, even intending to get a doctorate and lecture in drama in film studies in his later years. He may not have fulfilled the star potential that his talent warranted, but Sculthorpe presents the case that considering his entire filmography, one can not only appreciate his diverse skill, but also conclude he raised the quality of nearly every film he appeared in. Kudos to Mr. Sculthorpe for his invaluable work in preserving this important part of classic Hollywood history.

A few of Heflin's films are streaming on YouTube:

THE PROWLER (1951) also with Evelyn Keyes. He's fantastic in this, managing to be variably creepy, desperate, sympathetic, and manipulative.
COUNT THREE AND PRAY (1955) with Joanne Woodward and Raymond Burr:

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), also with Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, and Lizabeth Scott.  Watch this if only for the tremendous opening title music (!):