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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.