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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Classic Film Screenings for June in Greater Boston

Summer is officially here, and many New Englanders will be heading to the beach, mountains, Tanglewood, etc to enjoy the short outdoor season.  For indoor activities, there are no shortage of classic film screenings in the area in June to cool us off from all the outdoor exertions (!)

The Brattle
It's hard to believe that we'll be a full year removed from last year's "Summer of Darkness" with Ball State University and TCM, but the learning continues with the year-long film noir repertory series screening at the Brattle.  This fun series continues with "Prime Noir of the 1950s" from Weds June 8 through Thurs. June 16.  Click the link above for the full schedule of films, most of which are 35 mm screenings.  I'm particularly excited about IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), which, while I saw during "Summer of Darkness", I believe might have been the most emotionally impactful noir I've seen, with a powerhouse performance from Humphrey Bogart. Leading lady Gloria Grahame is especially poignant; in real life she was apparently going through a divorce from director/husband Nicholas Ray. This is screening on Fri June 10 and I have plans to attend.

The Brattle staff's 'pick' is SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, screening in 35 mm on Thursday June 9 at 8:30 PM and Sunday June 12 at 1 PM.  I'm eager to see this one as well, as I've not seen it, and it's later noir.  Finally, I'm eager to see Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in Jules Dassin's NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950).  This one is a digital screening on Thursday, June 16 at 7:30 PM.
Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster

Other films that are being screened in the series are:  SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), MACAO (1952), KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), THE BIG COMBO (1955), THE BIG HEAT (1953), ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959), THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), THE KILLING (1956),  PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953).

There are some other interesting offerings in the second half of the month.  In the "not sure it's considered a classic film but this sure sounds like a cool event" category -- for fans of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, a double feature on Monday June 20 of a fan-made "remake" of the film and a 2016 "making of" documentary by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen (RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE) will be presented.  In both cases the filmmakers will be on hand to discuss their projects.  Watch the trailer here:

An intriguing-sounding series called "Man Meets Wilderness" is presented the last week in June and will feature the classic Chaplin comedy THE GOLD RUSH (1925) at noon on Sunday June 26th, and Robert Altman's western MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) at 2 PM and 7 PM also on the 26th.

Harvard Film Archive
Robert Aldrich
The HFA seems to have an great summer ahead for cinephiles--they will feature two summer long 'complete works' retrospectives; the first, that from director Robert Aldrich, starts in June. (Rouben Mamoulian is promised later this summer!)  Aldrich's career started in the early 40s and lasted through the early 80s.   As of this writing the HFA hasn't published the detailed summer schedule, but June screenings are lining up like this:

Friday June 3, 7 PM KISS ME DEADLY (Aldrich 1955) - a great cold-war style late noir that was featured in last year's 'noir summer'.
Sunday June 5, 5 PM 10 SECONDS TO HELL (Aldrich 1959) -- a WWII drama starring Jack Palance.

A sports double-feature is tempting on Friday June 10, 7 PM THE LONGEST YARD (Aldrich 1974) and 9:30 PM BIG LEAGUER (Aldrich 1953)
Saturday June 11 it's an Aldrich Western double-feature, both films featuring Burt Lancaster:  7 PM ULZANA'S RAID, and APACHE (1954) at 9 PM.
Sunday June 12 at 5, it's THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (Aldrich 1965) with James Stewart.
Friday June 17, at 7 PM it's THE LAST SUNSET, and at 9:15 it's THE CHOIRBOYS (1977)
Saturday June 18 at 7 PM THE DIRTY DOZEN, (Aldrich 1967) followed at 9 PM by the noir THE PROWLER (Joseph Losey, 1951) -- a fave of mine.
Sunday June 19,  5 PM William Wellman's THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945) with Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum starts the evening, followed by  SODOM AND GOMORRAH (Aldrich,1962) at 7 PM

The weekend of June 24-26 will be a 'Members Weekend' and while no screening announcements have yet been made, I'll be planning to attend at least one evening as I greatly enjoyed this event last winter.

Coolidge Corner Theatre
The Coolidge's "Big Screen Classics" continues on full steam through the summer.  In June, they will be screening classic screwball comedy THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart (how's that for a trifecta of top-tier stars?) on Monday June 6th at 7:00,  Two special guests, documentary filmmakers Joan Kramer and David Heeley, who knew Stewart and Hepburn, will be on hand for a Q&A.  Then on the following Monday (13th) will be the epic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), which is just a bit too long at 3.5 hours for a work night for me.

Somerville Theatre
Greta Garbo & John Gilbert
Two all-time great early screen stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert will throw romantic sparks on the big screen in their 1926 silent melodrama FLESH AND THE DEVIL in 35 mm. This continues the 'Silents, Please' series on Sunday June 25th at 2 PM, with live music by pianist Jeff Rapsis.  I greatly enjoyed the screening of the funny caper PATHS TO PARADISE earlier this month, also with Rapsis, who is a local who does a tremendous job accompanying films with piano or organ.  More about him on his website here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Crazy Scary: Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in KISS OF DEATH (1947)

I'm pleased to share this post on Tommy Udo for the Great Villain Blogathon 2016, brought to you by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Shadows and Satin, and Karen at Silver Screenings. Check out their pages for the complete list of great posts for the characters we love to hate. NOTE: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Imagine you never heard of Richard Widmark, didn't know he garnered an Oscar nomination for his first ever film, KISS OF DEATH, and certainly aren't aware of any infamous scene involving a middle-aged woman and a wheelchair.  Audiences in 1947, coming to see KISS OF DEATH for the first time, would fit this description.  In 1947 you would have likely paid your money to see Victor Mature, a reliable, good-looking leading man, or perhaps wanted to check out new leading lady Coleen Gray.  Maybe you had heard of and admired the work of director Henry Hathaway, who had a respectable resume with films starting from 1930, and in fact continued his career through the mid 1970s with directing credits on classics as TRUE GRIT, NEVADA SMITH, and AIRPORT.  Or maybe you were attracted by the movie's provocative title and wanted to be scared, seduced, or both.  Coming out of the movie, though, you would most likely be talking most about one thing: the villain in this piece, Tommy Udo.  This post examines how skillfully Widmark, Hathaway, and the film's writers and crew, created this inimitable character.

Immediately after the opening credits
The film itself is a respectable but not outstanding noir, with hallmarks of the genre including voice-over narration at the beginning and end (however, this time coming from a woman (!)), and on-location settings in NYC claiming to be the real locations.  Both features were common to the 'docu-noir' style of the time, which is a nice touch and adds to the grittiness of the action.
Victor Mature as Bianco trying to
make a quiet getaway from the crime scene
After the credits roll Victor Mature makes his appearance, a tall, dark and handsome man named Bianco, who looks too straight to be staging a jewelry store robbery in the middle of a crowded commercial high rise during prime shopping time.  He is clumsy in how he handles the robbery, and bungles every attempt to escape.  He gets caught and, it turns out, he has an extensive record of various similar crimes and has done time.  Considering this is Victor Mature, and he looks as if he could have just given a sermon at his local Presbyterian church--that's how earnest he comes across--you might have trouble buying him as a criminal.  Nonetheless he would likely succeed in winning your sympathy as the protagonist who needs another chance to redeem himself.

About 13 minutes into the film you'll encounter the character Tommy Udo (pronounced "YOO-doe"), not as a live human but as words on a page, declaring him worthy of a prison sentence.  You probably take little notice or meaning to those words, and certainly don't appreciate the foreshadowing of the future link between the two men.  He certainly wasn't part of the jewelry store robbery that got our hero in trouble.
The protagonist, Bianco, and villain Udo, to be sentenced on the same day.
Widmark as Udo keeping an eye
 on the guards outside his cell
However, when you first *see* him in the flesh -- he makes an immediate impression as a thin blond man behind bars, sitting to the right of Mature.  Your hair will likely rise on the back of your neck. Why? He speaks with an ugly street-cultivated New York accent, spitting his words and sneering while goading both the prison guard, "that cheap squirt passing up and down", and Mature's Bianco.  And then he switches from spitting insults to laughing -- and what a laugh.  He curls his lips and emits a nasal chuckle that borders just on the hysterical.  (Ironically, the laugh originated from a nervous habit that Widmark had when originally reading for the role -- Kim R. Holston, Richard Widmark, a Bio-Bibliography.) Still, rather than assigning any real importance to this character, and not knowing anything about his past, you're thinking, oh, this is just the type of uncomfortable company our hero is going to have to deal with during his time in Sing-Sing.  (Bianco gets a full sentence by refusing a deal from Assistant District Attorney D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to get less time by squealing on his crime partners.)

The next scene has Bianco and Udo in a train on their way to Sing-Sing, and they are handcuffed together.  Again a foreshadowing of the characters' fateful connection that, as a viewer in 1947, you would not have appreciated, but it certainly is a clever touch by writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer.

Bianco (Mature) enjoys a fun moment
with Nettie (Gray), now married.
Udo will disappear from your mind as he disappears from the plot of the film for some 30 more minutes.  We see how young, innocent Coleen Gray as Nettie comes to the emotional aid of Bianco, and how Bianco changes his mind about not squealing after learning one of his partners ("Rizzo" - never seen on screen) was involved with his wife, leading to her suicide, and wants to take revenge and get his life back.  He is paroled under the watchful eye of D'Angelo, reunites with his daughters, and marries Nettie.  But the price is high.  The deal Bianco makes with D'Angelo is to use his scheister of an attorney, Earl Howser, wonderfully played by Taylor Holmes, to get to Rizzo--the associate at whom Bianco throws suspicion as a squealer in an earlier crime.  Howser hires, you guessed it, hit man Udo, also freshly out of prison, to get to Rizzo. But Udo doesn't 'get' Rizzo, just his wheelchair bound mother (Mildred Dunnock) who he encounters in the famous wheelchair scene.

Widmark and Mildred Dunnock
This scene is where we see Widmark pull out all the stops.  As a 1947 viewer of course you know this guy is trouble, but unlike scary tough characters portrayed by the likes of Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney in gangster films, this guy looks like a strong wind would take care of him. He's hunched over, swaying slightly back and forth, his normal posture demanding his shoulders are uneven, and stomps what remains of his cigarette on the apartment floor.  When he discovers Rizzo has made a hasty exit and his mother is lying to cover up, he approaches her first with that deranged laughter, then rapidly switches to rage. His habit of wiping his mouth during the emotional transition is a tic that appears later in the film -- a nice touch Widmark adds to give us the feeling this guy is unhinged.  He says "You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over."

Then, he jumps into action, rips out the electric cord from a lamp, wraps it tight around Dunnock, and hurls her, wheelchair and all, down the stairs, while she screams before crashing to her most certain death.  You, the viewer, might lose your lunch at this point.  This animal, with not the slightest hesitation, kills with pleasure, and he doesn't even care that it's messy -- he's panther on the loose.

Watch the entire infamous wheelchair scene here:

You'll barely have a chance to recover from the shock of this scene before it becomes clear that Bianco's association with Udo is not done -- he's been told he has to get in Udo's confidence to pull critical damning information that D'Angelo can use to get Udo put away.  Now the two men are back in the same scene, both of their fates hanging on what the other will do. You're likely scared at the thought that Bianco has to deal with this guy -- if he slips only slightly, the consequences will be severe.  Your fear is only enhanced by the contrast between the two men -- Mature is tall, dark, large-boned and, Widmark is blond and slight. Widmark has a frantic energy, while Mature is calm, solemn, and quiet. The scene plays out with Udo believing ex-con Bianco is his "paaaal", and takes him to various night clubs, putting on displays of ill-treating everyone around, but eventually gives Bianco critical info. that he needs.
Bianco (Mature) looks on as Udo makes threats towards his girl--just look at her face.
But this isn't all.  Bianco is going to have to testify at Udo's trial, which D'Angelo says is a sure conviction.  You breathe a sigh of relief that that may be it for Udo--but no. The prosecution's case wasn't strong enough, and Udo was let free--free to hunt down Bianco.  The tension is ratcheted up when Bianco, on his own terms, decides to entice Udo into a late-night meeting with the purpose of sacrificing himself so Udo can be caught in the act of murder.  This scene is terrifying, and with Widmark's portrayal of Udo as a madman, you wonder if he will behave in the rational ways Bianco is expecting.  I'm not going to spoil the ending of the film, although I realize many readers know it.

I've mentioned how Widmark uses his voice, mannerisms, and body to portray an unhinged psychopath.  But beyond that, 20th Century-Fox's costume and wardrobe team made excellent choices to enhance this impression on the viewer. At first I knew there was something about the way this guy dressed...sure, perhaps it was the unusual dark suit and light tie combination.  But then I realized, only on second viewing--the HAT!!  The hat initially seems like a typical 1940s fedora.  But Udo's hat is out of proportion--the brim is too wide and too flat, dwarfing Widmark's head and face.  The effect is somewhat clown-like.  It's the clown-like effect that makes Widmark's Udo just that much crazier and scarier.  Have a look:

After his turn in this film in 1947, Widmark was no longer unknown. In an interview with the Telegraph UK's Michael Shelden, he stated he felt like he "overdid" his portrayal of Udo, and was self-conscious, knowing he wasn't Darryl Zanuck's original choice for the role.  His career off and running, he got teased by fellow actors about his crazy laugh, but he had attained his goal--to be in the movies.  For a while he was typecast him into playing very similar characters in films such as ROAD HOUSE.  Luckily for film lovers and for Widmark, and unlike other talents who were typecast early (Laird Cregar, for one), he was able to exercise his acting range in different roles and is remembered not just for this film, but for portrayals in westerns, and as solemn, morally-grounded characters such as Col. Tad Lawson in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1962).

Frank Gorshin as 'The Riddler'
Yet, it may be his first role that is his most iconic.  Some have pointed out the character similarities between Udo and 'The Riddler' or even 'The Joker' in Batman franchise.  In fact Frank Gorshin, who portrayed The Riddler in the 1966 film and the TV series, cited Widmark's Udo as an inspiration.  You may also see a bit of Udo in Heath Ledger's acclaimed portrayal of The Joker as all kinetic energy and malevolent insanity in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Regardless, Widmark's accomplishment with this character ensures that Udo, once experienced, will likely never be too far from our nightmares.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Movies on an Island -- with my Dad

This is my entry in the "5 Movies on an Island" blogathon to celebrate "National Classic Movie Day" on May 16th, hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe.
Everyone who knew him would agree with me that my Dad was a modern Renaissance man.  A Ph.D. scientist by practice, he loved and made a study of the arts and literature in his spare time. His primary love was classical music, especially opera, and he taught opera appreciation later in his life.  I was just starting to adore classic film when I lost Dad, but nevertheless, he also loved classic film, and I have fond memories of sharing some with him, starting from when I was a child through to the last year we had together.  May 16 is Dad's birthday, and this year he will be gone five years. This post is dedicated to him, and if I ever found myself on a desert island, I'd hope to have with me these five films, that he and I shared, to remember him.

Presented in the order I watched them with Dad, they are:
SCROOGE aka A Christmas Carol (1951)
This would perhaps be on my top ten favorite films list in any case.  Count me among those who believe Alastair Sim's portrayal of Scrooge is the best ever on film, because of his treating the character as a real person.  His deeply psychological portrait of a man who hates himself, and thus everyone around him, is compellingly nuanced.  The terrific supporting cast of Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, and Michael Hordern, and taught direction of Brian Desmond Hurst, contribute to making the film one that, in the words of Leonard Maltin, is too good to be viewed only at Christmas.  My earliest recollection of this film was when I was perhaps about 10 years old, and late on a winter's evening I tiptoed into our family room to see that my Dad was on his own watching this blurry, scratchy old B&W film on the TV.  "What's this?", I asked.  "It's 'A Christmas Carol' -- from the 50's, the best movie version", Dad replied.  I chuckled in disbelief -- "This??"  It looked so ancient and uninviting.  It must have been a very poor print.  I shook my head and walked away from the TV.  Decades later I want to tell my Dad that this film is a holiday ritual for me, and that of course, as usual, he was right.

I was in college and on summer break, staying with my parents in our family home, when Dad checked this film out of the video store and announced it was going to be our evening's entertainment.  When I asked him what the film was about, I knew immediately what his attraction was.  It was a story about a opera-loving man (Klaus Kinski) determined, against all odds, to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and to engage the eminent Enrico Caruso to sing there.  As directed by Werner Herzog, and produced in Germany, I recall it being a somewhat surrealistic journey, fraught with madness and danger, excitement and love.  I confess to not appreciating it those many years ago, but I saw my Dad smile as he watched.  It's now considered one of Herzog's best, and for me, with my new love of film, more than deserving of another viewing.  Having this on a desert island will give me more than enough time to plumb the depths of vision and meaning that Herzog brought to this tale.

THE SEARCHERS is a film that existed in my imagination for many years before I ever saw it.  As a teenager, I was fascinated with Buddy Holly and his music, and was familiar with the story that Buddy Holly & the Crickets' first big hit "That'll be the Day," was inspired by the phrase repeated often by John Wayne in this movie.  I hadn't heard any more about the film for many years since then, but in recent years I began to see it popping up in lists of the best films of all time, best westerns, etc.  [I was impressed --Buddy Holly and his friends had good taste in movies as well as music!]  In 2009, I decided to finally see it, prompted by a friend who was on a mission to see every film in the AFI's top 100.  I rented it, and decided to watch it one day when my parents were visiting me here in Boston.  Neither of them recalled seeing it, but thought that they might have when it first came out in theaters in 1956.  When the credits rolled, Mom, Dad, and I agreed we had seen something special--an epic performance by Wayne and a classic of storytelling, framing, and cinematography.  Knowing that my Dad appreciated seeing this as I did, made me feel like I had accomplished a mission in more ways than one. This film also has enough beauty and characterizations to make multiple desert-island viewings a great pleasure.

LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937) -- Dad was the one who introduced this Jean Renoir film to me.  As he took advantage of his membership in the now defunct Blockbuster video mail order service, he came across this one and brought the DVD along on another trip to Boston.  I had not yet entered fully into my classic film obsession, but I remember being open to this film, as I'd heard of Erich von Stroheim, and was eager to see a war film from an earlier era; at the time, I had become a fan of WWII films and stories, being turned on to them by Clint Eastwood's filming of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.  This B&W film grabbed me initially by the colorful characters portrayed by von Stroheim & Jean Gabin, the multiple languages spoken, and the poignant anti-war message camouflaged by humor and romance.  It is a film that should remind us in any era that we are all human, and most of all deserve respect from one another.  The film also started Dad on an appreciation of French cinema, an interest he explored in the last years of his life by taking a course from his local 'institute of learning in retirement' on films from Truffaut and Malle.

Buster Keaton -- the Shorts Collection.
I credit Buster with setting my feet solidly on the path to classic film obsession. On a lark, I'd brought a friend with me to a local screening of STEAMBOAT BILL JR with live music.  Shortly after that, I was exploring classic film starting with the silent comedians, Buster Keaton first, followed by Chaplin, watching everything they ever made.  One of my Christmas gifts that year was this multiple disc set from Kino.  As my parents and sister were visiting for the holidays, I 'subjected' them to watching these whenever we needed some down time.  To my great surprise, my Dad and sister both enjoyed them almost as much as I did.  Our favorites were probably COPS, ONE WEEK, and THE BALLOONATIC.  Once we finished a short, it was hard to keep from watching the next one.  I remember saying to my Dad, "Up for another?"  He replied, "Yes, they're addictive, aren't they?"

Over the last months of Dad's life he and I corresponded by phone and email about classic film, both of us watching and discussing some of the Truffaut and Malle films he was studying in his short course. I wish I'd have had more time to explore with him this mutual interest, but am tremendously grateful for the love of art and classics in general that Dad made it a priority to share with me.  Along with many other memories, these films will always be linked to his memory in my mind.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Hollywood Days -- The Turner Classic Film Festival 2016

Attending only my 2nd TCM Classic Film Festival for 4+ days at the end of April, I felt equal parts film student, party girl, and star groupie.  The 'star groupie' in me could not resist seeking out and photographing the stars on the 'Hollywood Walk of Fame' or certain handprints and footprints and signatures in cement in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theater.  The film student in me relished the opportunity to see new-to-me films, on the big screen, in the presence of celebrities and scholars sharing their personal stories with appreciative audiences.  The 'party girl' in me enjoyed meeting other classic film fans and bloggers who all embraced one another in the joy of indulging at the epicenter of our favorite passion.  It's an experience highly recommended for anyone enamored of film and film history.
A collage of some of the video graphics playing on the big screens prior to each screening.  I love how TCM does this, emphasizing the films and themes of the festival while allowing a feast for the eyes in anticipation of the film.
View on Hollywood Blvd of the
Festival environs
First, I'll admit that I didn't completely fulfill the expectations of my schedule as planned and documented in a previous post. Of that list, because of either getting in line too late, or simply needing some down time, I missed DOUBLE HARNESSLOS TALLOS AMARGOSPRIVATE PROPERTY, "90th Anniversary of Vitaphone (shorts)", DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID, and THE BAND WAGON.  Other than that, I pretty much stuck to my plan and watched a total of 14 films.  Besides THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which I wrote about here, the films I enjoyed the most were:

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (Thursday evening) -- This was my first film of the festival and despite the fire alarm evacuation five minutes before the end of the film, it was a great start.  I hadn't ever seen this film, and was interested to see more of Dorothy McGuire, who I didn't care for in THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, and who was OK in FRIENDLY PERSUASION -- those being the only other films of hers I've seen.  Here she was magnificent playing the steely Irish immigrant mother in turn of the century NYC lower east side trying to hold her family together.  Ted Donaldson, who as a child actor portrayed her son 'Neeley', introduced the film and, among other stories, told about how infatuated he was with Joan Blondell, here as McGuire's scandal-ridden but beautiful and kind-hearted sister.  The film was well-paced, moving, and yet felt true-to-life.

HE RAN ALL THE WAY--In my preview post I wrote that this was in a dead heat with DOUBLE HARNESS for a Friday afternoon viewing -- it needn't have been, as very few people got into the latter, and most of those rushed to the Egyptian to see this, John Garfield's last film.  It was a stunning noir, written by Dalton Trumbo, and underscored everything good about John Garfield.  Here he played a tough baddie, who nonetheless projected enough raw sexuality as well as vulnerability to make you forget to root against him.  I marveled at the talent we lost at a young age.  Shelley Winters was effective as his love interest/kidnap victim, and an older Wallace Ford was perfect as her middle-aged doughy father.  The film maintained tension until the inevitably regretful end.  RIP Mr. Garfield, and thank you.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (Friday evening).  Two words: Angela Lansbury.  It was worth it to "run all the way" from the Egyptian Theatre down Hollywood Blvd back to the 'TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX' to catch this screening.  I got in the back of the line seemingly two nautical miles from the cinema entrance, didn't even collect a queue number, but managed to get in and meet my friend who was early and was guarding a seat for me with her life (thank you, L.!). While it was a thrill to see Lansbury live, and cheer her on as one of the most inspirational great ladies of the cinema and stage working today, her performance in the film was the true highlight (I had recently seen Lansbury live and in a smaller venue at the Harvard Film Archive in 2014). This was a chilling cold-war mystery/black comedy that went in all kinds of unexpected directions.  Nightmares figure prominently here, and the film itself was nightmare-inducing, yet fascinating and highly recommended.  I was wide awake until the film ended at about midnight, and considering the sleep deprivation I had endured, this is saying something.

Sr. Rose Pacatte interviewed by
Ileana Douglas
THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (Saturday evening)-- Of all the films, this one was the worst attended, perhaps about a third of the smallish Chinese Multiplex Theater 6 was full.  Well, it didn't have a major film star or family member present; it isn't a little-known precode or highly-anticipated restoration; it was up against blockbusters THE LONG GOODBYE and THE KING AND I; and it celebrates faith in our largely secular society.  That said, for me it represented an opportunity to see a film I'd never seen, one that made Jennifer Jones a star and won her an Oscar, and suitably fit in with the festival theme of 'moving pictures'. I was a bit worried it might be too saccharine, but it really wasn't.  There were a couple scenes that bordered on it, but altogether it was quite moving and genuine.  The supporting cast of Vincent Price, Anne Revere, Charles Bickford (rapidly becoming a fave), and Gladys Cooper was uniformly excellent, and their parts were well-written and nuanced.  The digital presentation of the black-and-white photography was luminous, and the story was compelling.  This was a highlight, and I was glad to see the fascinating and inspiring Sr. Rose Pacatte (film critic for National Catholic Reporter) introduce the film.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS The film, for me, was average, but what made this screening special was the presentation in advance of the film by visual effects artist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt, who did extensive detective research to uncover the probable methods that Paramount's artists used to create the effects of the martian warships and alien creatures as they attempt to take over planet Earth.  This is a great example of why you attend a festival like this.  While I didn't learn enough to try these effects at home (!), it was fun to watch the effects in the film with the new knowledge of the technical wizardry, which, for the mid-1950s, was pretty effective. Here are some photos taken from their presentation.

THE STARS -- I'm going to let the photos (mostly taken by me, and therefore pretty amateur) speak for themselves.  I felt I was doing these long-gone stars homage for the joy and fun they had brought me over the past years.  I couldn't find some of my favorite stars' "stars", and didn't have time to search for very long, so I will add to my photo collage with new "stars" each year.
Reaching through time 

TCM Staff greet festival-goers
on Thursday
Getting in to town a few days before the festival started led to a tour of the Forest Lawn Cemetery and the Getty Museum.  When the festival opened on Thursday, it was a blast getting to meet fellow fans, TCM-Party regulars and bloggers, especially when you crossed paths later in the festival and breathlessly compared notes on the films and guests.  My regret was the festival flew by so quickly there wasn't enough time to attend all the events, social and educational.  All in all, it was an enthralling experience which I plan to repeat next year.  Here's to Hollywood!
Getty Museum environs on a sunny day in L.A.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

One Week, Two Coasts, Two Extraordinary Silent Film Experiences

I don't know what I did to deserve such good fortune. In the course of one week--over one long weekend, to be exact--I was in the audience for two spectacular screenings of brilliant silent films, accompanied by live orchestral music composed recently, with the composers in attendance. One was on the west coast in Los Angeles at the Turner Classic Film Festival, Friday April 29, and the other on the east coast, here in Brookline, MA, at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, on Monday, May 2nd. The liberal use of superlatives in this post must be excused, as they are completely warranted; anyone in either audience will attest.

The TCM Film Festival screening: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), Fri. April 29th I'll be publishing another post shortly about some of my experiences at the festival, but this film was a highlight.  The film was made in Germany, directed by Carl Dreyer, and considered one of the masterpieces of the silent cinema, if not all cinema.  Its iconic star is French-born Maria Falconetti,
who is little known outside this film, but who gave one of the most stunning performances of all time.  This was my first ever viewing of the film, and it was unlike anything I'd seen. A dramatization of the final trial of St. Joan before her famous burning at the stake, it was not unlike one imagines the biblical Christ on trial by Pilate, with hypocritical judges manipulating the saintly Joan, both physically and psychologically, slowly toward her doom. The camera style was beyond expressionistic, mostly in either projecting disjointed close-ups of Joan and her accusers in a parade of faces, or capturing the environment with odd angles. Purportedly the actors used no makeup, leading to a raw, emotion-packed drama of personality, wits, and will.  It was somewhat of a miracle that the film survived, as it had been lost for many years until an original print was found in 1981 in a Norwegian insane asylum (!)
Enhancing the drama with astounding beauty was the live musical accompaniment -- festival attendees were witnessing a live performance of the 1994 score, the oratorio "Voices of Light" composed by Richard Einhorn.  Einhorn composed the piece at least in part, for the film, appropriately using medieval texts from mostly female mystics such as St. Hildegard of Bingen.  The soloists and U.C. Berkeley alumni chorus added a medieval other-worldliness to the proceedings.  Einhorn was present at the screening, and was interviewed beforehand by film critic Leonard Maltin, and shared how the film inspired him.  In a move unusual for film screenings, attendees were given a program for the performance with detailed notes and text of the oratorio.  Imagines of the cover and  inside pages of the program are here:

The audience held its collective breath until the final credits, when the chorus, who had been seated stealthily in black in the first several rows of the theater, stood up, turned and faced the audience, and delivered the Epilogue "Letter from Joan of Arc" --  So God King of Heaven, wills it; and so it has been revealed by the Maid".
The orchestra warming up before the screening
I hope to revisit the film soon, as I was so caught up in the emotion and thrill of the performances, both cinematic and musical, that I'm sure I missed so much detail of the drama taking place.  Many thanks to TCM for adding this event to the 2016 festival schedule.

For those interested, the complete oratorio can be heard on YouTube:

The film itself can also be found on YouTube.

The Coolidge Corner/Berklee Screening: VARIETÉ (1925) Mon., May 2  Readers of this blog know I previewed this theatrical event in my post here last month.  The experience did not disappoint.  The digitally restored film, directed by E.A. Dupont, and starring Emil Jannings, was an operatic melodrama of the highest order, with stunning visuals by cinematographer Karl Freund.  Accompanying it was a world premiere score, as written by Berklee College of Music film scoring students, conducted by the student composers, and performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  The music did, as film scoring Professor Sheldon Mirowitz said, enhance the drama.  It was clearly a modern piece but with tunes that evoked early 20th century culture.  What struck me the most was the brilliant acting of Emil Jannings.  Using only his face, he could convince you that he was a mild-mannered man in love, or an angry, menacing murderer. The confrontation scene between Janning's character and antagonist 'Artinelli' is one of the most beautifully choreographed and chilling scenes I've witnessed.

The contrasting faces of Emil Jannings:

I've now seen Jannings in five films, and my opinion of him as an actor has grown in each.  This performance may be his finest, although I loved him in THE LAST COMMAND, a role for which he won the first best actor Oscar even given.

The gorgeous art deco Coolidge cinema
The audience at the screening, similar to that for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, gave the performers, both from 1925 and today, a standing ovation.  The deserving six student composers are Mateo Rodo (Argentina), Larry Hong (USA), Austin Matthews (USA), Hyunju Yun (Korea), Kanako Hashiyama (Japan), and Nathan Drube (USA). The audiences in Martha's Vineyard, San Francisco, and Beverly, MA, who will have the opportunity to catch the encore performances in the next couple of months, will be no doubt tremendously moved and satisfied, as will audiences who purchase the upcoming release of the film and score by Kino Lorber later this year.

A thorough and scholarly review and appreciation of the score to the film is provided here, in the Boston Music Intelligencer.