Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Gunman's Walk' - An Underseen 1950s Western

Fans of tall, blond and dreamy 1950s movie star and singer Tab Hunter will want to approach Gunman's Walk (1958) with caution.  Here, Hunter is tall, gorgeous...and completely despicable.  The blackness of his character at times stretches credulity, but I'll bet you won't regret the experience of this underappreciated, thematically layered, and well-crafted western.

[This post is my contribution to the 'Underseen and Underrated' CMBA Spring Blogathon.  Go here to see all the posts this week, and take the road less traveled, film-wise.]

This western was made by Columbia Pictures and directed by Phil Karlson, better known for directing noirs such as 99 River St. and Kansas City Confidential, than westerns.  The story by Ric Hardman was converted to the screen by Frank Nugent, who over the prior decade had penned many scripts for John Ford, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Mister Roberts.  Getting top billing in the cast was veteran Van Heflin, followed by Hunter, and then James Darren and Kathryn Grant, at the time recently wed to Bing Crosby. Character actors Will Wright and Edward Platt, had small but memorable roles. 

The story revolves around a rancher, Lee Hackett (Heflin), who raised his two sons, Ed (Hunter) and Davy (Darren), to revere him, and instilled in them a sense of inferiority that manifested very differently in each son.  Ed is hotheaded, always wanting to equal or best his father, while Davy is introverted and generally compliant.  Lee, who the sons call by his first name, sees himself more in rambunctious Ed, and has trouble communicating with Davy.  However, Ed has developed a pathological streak, and Lee indulges him and protects him, which only frustrates the competitive son more.  Eventually Ed causes the death of a half-Indian ranch hand, the brother of a young woman (Grant) recently courted by Davy, by running him off a cliff while on horseback.  The only witnesses are two Indians who testify in court that the death was no accident.  However, a stranger appears and testifies the opposite, and Ed is let free.  This stranger, who was nowhere near the incident, expects payment from Hackett by in the form of ten of his best horses, including a white mare prized by Ed and Davy.  Lee relents, feeling he has no choice if he wants to protect Ed, but when word of this gets to Ed, a series of deadly confrontations ensue, leading up to the dramatic climax. 
James Darren (left) as Davy Hackett and Tab Hunter as Ed Hackett
Why Watch?
In 97 minutes, the film cleverly explores three themes in some depth. Credit screenwriter Nugent, whose script is economic and incredibly believable throughout.  The first, and most obvious theme, is family dysfunction, with an emphasis on the destructive side of masculinity. In the 1950s Hollywood 'discovered' the teenage/young adult market, and a great number of films explored topics of the generation gap, rebellious youth and clueless adults.  Think Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, to start. Gunman's Walk was very much of its time in this regard. 

The central male characters, father and two sons, compellingly play out the family drama.  Lee (Heflin) is essentially a good man, with a strong reputation in the community, but with his alternating competitive and indulgent treatment of his sons, has created a situation even he can't control. As Ed, Hunter himself was apparently very happy to get different sort of role and relished it. Early in the film we learn he's reckless with a gun--in a challenge to his father, he suggests each shoot a tin can that the other is holding in his hand, and while Lee decides the can needs to be positioned on a fence instead, and has just set it down, Ed shoots with no warning.  It goes downhill from there.  Ed reveals himself to be incredibly racist, boorish, and murderous. I had a mixed reaction to Hunter's performance. He did a great job of making me despise him, pulling out all the stops; yet he went so far on the black side that he lacked a nuance that would allow us to see some positive elements of his character. In a telling piece of film-making, a frustrated Ed throws a shot glass at his father's reflection in a barroom mirror. 
Davy Hackett is Ed's opposite - he's calm, sensitive, and respectful of his father, despite having reservations about the violence his father tacitly endorses. As a result, Lee can't relate to him and the son feels somewhat rejected.  Later in the movie Davy begins to stand up for himself--at one point during a confrontation with his father he says "Hey Lee, whadda ya know?  Without your boots on you aren't even as tall as I am!"  James Darren's portrayal of Davy is serviceable, if not remarkable.  Ultimately, the film leaves it to the audience to determine what was the cause of the family's downfall -- Lee's poor parenting, Ed's despicable character, circumstances, or all of the above.
The second theme is racism, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans. Here there isn't a doubt which side the film is on...while the white settler and local Sioux have come to an uneasy arrangement, the Indians are portrayed as victims of white supremacy. Viewers be cautioned, as there are constant slurs thrown at and about the Indians, 'half-breed' being the most common. As a modern viewer this grated on me, but I suspect this unfiltered dialogue was realistic of the time and place.  The Indian characters were never fully fleshed out, and the half-Sioux protagonist 'Clee' (Grant) didn't do much more than serve as a victim and love interest.  Yet the film clearly endorsed the legitimacy of Davy and Clee's relationship ... in an overt way that was in line with the trend of films of that era beginning to shed less than a favorable light on the country's racist past. 
The third theme is the evolution of the West and the role of law and order, moving from the early settlers who maintained open ranges for livestock and used guns to defend their territory, to the next generation of settlers establishing towns with laws and those elected to enforce them.  The film title draws attention to the danger of two men carrying guns, about to confront each other on the streets of the town, and makes it clear that guns are not welcome in the local town; much of the conflict stems from Lee's unwillingness to accept that his way of life, represented by his desire to always openly carry a gun, even when that is no longer accepted among the majority.  Lee himself is still well respected, and he's allowed a lot of latitude as a result, but even he respects the 'appropriate' use of a gun, which Ed clearly oversteps again and again. The gun is can be seen here as a symbol of masculinity gone amok, as Davy rejects gun violence, Ed relishes it, and Lee is somewhere in between.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film is Heflin's performance as Lee.  Those familiar with my blog know I'm a big Heflin fan, and this film is one I'd point to for evidence. He becomes Lee Hackett, using a physical swagger and gravelly voice to make him a presence to be reckoned with, and he's not afraid to be unlikeable, through his racism, or goading of his sons. Yet, he maintains a degree of our sympathy because we can see Lee engaging in a human struggle to maintain his status, while his society, and his family, are falling apart around him.  He lets down his guard enough that we can see the humanity underneath the hard exterior. 
Tab Hunter, who is still with us, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential had great praise for Heflin: "To me, Van was the ultimate actor.  He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was completely believable."  He also commented about how Heflin was committed to extra rehearsals at Hunter's request, to help him work out details of his scenes.  Heflin and Hunter were together on screen two other times, in Battle Cry (1955) and They Came to Cordura (1959), the latter which I reviewed here.

Director Karlson deserves credit for his clever stagings of the drama, as does cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., who captures the beauty of the Tucson, Arizona location, and the claustrophobia of the many indoor scenes.   It's a notably darker film than most of John Ford's, perhaps more 'noir-like', but at the time did significantly well at the box office, perhaps as result of Hunter's star power.  Ultimately, though, this film is little remembered, possibly crowded out by the western classics from Ford, Howard Hawks, made with bigger stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and the like.  Those interested in seeing the film today can find it on demand with a subscription to STARZ, which owns licenses for Columbia films through their relationship with Sony Pictures, or with an internationally produced DVD or Blu-Ray.  The trailer is linked below.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 2017 Greater Boston Classic Film Screenings -- My Picks

May started joyfully and uproariously with The Freshman at the Coolidge, with live orchestral accompaniment from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  Brilliant is not too strong a word for the music; the entire experience epitomized the best of the art of film.  I had a grin on my face the entire evening.  The BSFO has been adding performances to their calendar, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June and in NYC later this month.

My picks for classic film fans in the Boston area are as follows:

Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland in Greed
May 14, 2 PM at the Somerville Theatre, 'Silents, Please'  series, is Greed (1924, d. Erich von Stroheim).  From the name of this film, and the picture to the right, you know it's not going to be a laugh-a-minute.  It's considered a (silent) masterpiece from the German maverick director, whose vision was such that the original cut of the film was a staggering, unsustainable eight hours long; the film was eventually debuted by MGM at about 2.5 hours.  Much of the original footage was lost.  Even at 2.5 hours, modern cinephiles rave about the film.  Roger Ebert has named it one of his 'Great Movies', and in his piece illustrates the twists and turns of its fascinating history.  I read and enjoyed the source novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, about a quack dentist in turn of the century San Francisco who is runs into significant trouble when his wife Trina come in possession of a $5,000 winning lottery ticket.  This silent film stars Zasu Pitts as Trina and Gibson Gowland as McTeague.  Von Stroheim shares screenwriting credits with June Mathis, a writer and early film executive who 'discovered' Rudolph Valentino.

Accompanying this screening will be Jeff Rapsis on the piano.  I've not seen this and can't wait.

The Brattle has an impressive May lineup of David Lynch films, as well as some classic comedies, with some Welles and Hitchcock thrown in.  If you're in the area at all this month, check out their calendar.  I'm particularly excited to see the classic comedy Playtime, by influential comedian Jacques Tati on Sunday, May 28th. I've not seen it before, but I enjoyed Mon Oncle last summer when it was on TCM, which also featured Tati's slightly befuddled 'Monsieur Hulot' character.  I need to see more of Tati.
Playtime (1967) from brattlefilm.org

I may camp out in Harvard Square for the weekend, as continuing the French film theme, also from 1967, is Le Samourai, d. Jean-Pierre Melville, which will screen twice in 35mm on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29th. In this one, hearthrob actor Alain Delon portrays a hit man caught in the web of his own weaving.  Another one of Ebert's 'Great Movies', it will be fun to see this, and compare it with Alan Ladd's hitman in This Gun For Hire from 1942, which, not entirely coincidentally, is screening that same day at the Brattle.

The Brattle is also screening the documentary Harold & Lillian -- A Hollywood Love Story (2015, d. Daniel Raim), multiple times in early May.  I plan to see it this Saturday, May 6. My friend Raquel of OutofthePastBlog.com highly recommends this exploration of the story of Harold & Lillian Michelson, who contributed their talents behind the camera -- he a storyboard artist, she a film researcher, during Hollywood's golden age.  The documentary has gotten rave reviews, and currently owns a 8.7 user rating on IMDb.   Monica Castillo of the New York Times said "Like flipping through misplaced leaves in a photo book, the documentary maintains a free-flowing tone as it uncovers the work that went into creating some of the indelible scenes in Hollywood history."  Watch the trailer below:

À bientôt!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Previewing the BSFO's new score for Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman'

Jobyna Ralston and Harold Lloyd in The Freshman
courtesy IMDb
Silent comedian Harold Lloyd had a huge hit in 1925 with The Freshman  (d. Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor).  I've not seen it, and cannot wait for my first viewing tomorrow, on the big screen at the Coolidge, accompanied by the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  I've written here before about the process by which selected elite students of Berklee College film scoring department compose a new silent film score under the direction of Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz, and then premiere it at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, as part of the 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.  (It was one of these performances, six plus years ago, solidified my emerging obsession with all things classic film.)  The reputation of the BSFO has grown to the extent that, on opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June, they'll be there to repeat this performance.  Yes, opening night of the SFSFF.  And so far no one outside of Berklee has yet to hear the score.

Well, that is almost no one -- last Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend a 'Master Class' from Prof. Mirowitz sponsored by the Coolidge, during which he previewed some of the highlights of the score, and revealed some other interesting tidbits.  Bonus for me- I got to hold in my hands, albeit briefly, the complete published BSFO score for Variété, from 2016.
Sheldon Mirowitz, from SheldonMirowitz.com
A few highlights:
  • The new score to The Freshman has seven separate student composer-a feat of collaboration perhaps unique at an undergraduate college, but not so unique in the long history of film scoring, said Prof. Mirowitz.  The great film composers almost always have significant support along the way, directing other, unbilled musicians to produce a final score.  
  • Selected to perform the score in live performance, the BSFO musicians are 'the best players in the Boston area.'  Whoa.  
  • The score will be a blend of musical themes that conjure up the past, but are infused with decidedly contemporary sensibilities.  Prof. Mirowitz described that The Freshman, while being 'of its time', is also 'about its time'-and the music needs to reflect that.  A short clip of the 'college theme' was an example, a nostalgic, tuneful march-time 'fight song'.  As a 'sweet' persona, Harold Lloyd's college freshman Harold Lamb, who works hard to achieve status on campus, deserves a bit of 'old timey' flavor to enhance the comedic elements in the film.  
  • The individual student composers will conduct the reels for which they composed the music, but will also take part in the orchestra, responsible for the various sound effects written into the score.  
  • While the release dates haven't been announced, Prof. Mirowitz reminded us that the BSFO was engaged by Kino Lorber to accompany the restorations of The Last Laugh and Variété, both German silent films starring the great Emil Jannings.  
  • Even more exciting, they have been commissioned to compose a score for a new restoration of The Man Who Laughs (1928).  Keeping my fingers crossed for a Coolidge premiere.  
  • New York City cinephiles note -- the BSFO will make their NYC debut on May 20th with a screening of The Freshman, at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Tony Bennett concert hall.
  • Prof. Mirowitz recently presented a TED Talk, 'What does music DO?' that illuminates his view of the role of music in film and beyond -- check it out below.  To boil it down, the music helps us understand our emotions, which enables us to make sense of the world. 

Per www.silentfilm.org, here are this year's BSFO contributors:
Composers: Vincent Isler (Switzerland), Esin Aydingoz (Turkey), Bernard Duc (Switzerland), Victoria Ruggiero (USA), Andres Gutierrez (Mexico), Jeffrey Gaiser (USA), and Vinicius Pippa (Brazil)
Players: Gabriela Sofia Gomez Estevez (flute/piccolo), Lindsey Stein (oboe/English horn), Stephanie Clark (clarinet/bass clarinet), Dan Pfeiffer (horn), Joey Epstein (trumpet), Ethan Santos (trombone/bass trombone), Kino Lee (keyboard), Eren Başbuğ (keyboard), Tania Mesa (violin), Nathaniel Taylor (cello), Michael Simon (bass), Patrick Hanafin (percussion)

Special recognition to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Becki and Dr. Martin Norman, founders of 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TCM Film Festival Highlights -- 2017 Edition


Historic Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, home of
the first Academy Awards ceremony, and
headquarters for the Turner Classic Film Festival
The annual Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is akin to Mecca for the classic film fan. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made the trip for the third time.  As before, it was simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, and educational.
As expected I didn't completely adhere to the crazy schedule I set for myself.  I missed:  Beat the Devil, Barefoot in the Park, So this is Paris, The Front Page, and Speedy.  Yikes.  Overall, though, I managed to see 13 films in 3+ days, and considering all that was going on, I'm declaring myself guilt-free.
I also took some time to see and hear celebrities and sights in keeping with the classic Hollywood scene.  And, of course celebrating Hollywood magic with old and new friends capped off the weekend perfectly.


My Film Viewing Highlights

The Magic Box (1951), d. John Boulting -- on Friday afternoon I chucked my schedule and attended the screening of this 1951 British film instead of So This is Paris.  My rationale was that I can see the latter film in June at the Somerville Theatre, with live piano accompaniment.

Not a bad choice as I loved, loved, lovedThe Magic Box.  Introducing the film was eminent critic Leonard Maltin, who explained that the film was commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951, when the country was still nursing its collective, severe, war wounds.  The film lined up a 'who's who' of British stage and screen actors, headed by the eminent Robert Donat.  Appearing were Glynis JohnsWilliam HartnellMichael HordernKathleen Harrison, a young Richard Attenborough, and even Laurence Olivier, who delighted in a cameo role as a street bobby, just to name a few.   
Directed by John Boulting, this biopic portrayed the story British film pioneer William Friese-Greene, largely forgotten today, but  considered by some an inventor of the first moving picture camera, concurrent with Edison.  The film is stunningly shot by Jack Cardiff in technicolor, and the film is alternately amusing, nostalgic and bittersweet.  Cleverly scripted using two separate flashbacks, we learn the havoc Friese-Greene's obsession with invention played with his personal life and well-being.  
All actors are perfect, and Robert Donat, while playing a role not unlike his 'Mr. Chips,' conveys boyish enthusiasm, frustration, and melancholy with perfect subtlety.  Whenever I see Donat in anything I'm saddened by his passing at such a young age (53).  I was also taken by the luminous beauty of Austrian Maria Schell, who played Friese-Greene's first wife.  Schell is the older sister of actor Maximilian Schell, and I'm not sure I'd seen her in any other film.

Martin Scorcese cited this film as a major inspiration for his Oscar-winning Hugo from 2011, and along with Scorcese (!) I unconditionally recommend it, especially for Anglophiles.    
Maria Schell and Robert Donat in The Magic Box
Unfaithfully Yours (1948), d. Preston Sturges.  As this was the late film on Friday, I wish I hadn't dozed off for one or two scenes, but caught enough of it to have a fantastic time.  The title of this one sounded vaguely familiar, but only this week did I find out there was a remake with the same title, in 1984, starring Dudley Moore.  I'm glad I didn't know that, actually, as I could enjoy this film without thinking about how it may have been remade. Sturges gives his witty treatment to this dark comedy in which a stuffy orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) plots three different ways to take revenge on his devoted wife (Linda Darnell) when he suspects her of cheating.  The plotting all takes place in his head while he's conducting, and is set to dramatic classical orchestral works.  The comedy takes off when the unhappy husband attempts to carry out his nefarious schemes.
In his introduction, Eddie Muller mentioned that Linda Darnell was the loveliest female lead of the day, and her calm sweetness is a nice contrast to Harrison's pompous cynicism.  Harrison carries some really funny bits, including an extended solo slapstick sequence in which he never speaks a line, but manages to trash his own living room, and his dignity, in the process.  For those searching for Darnell or Harrison at their peak, look no further.  
Kurt Kreuger, Linda Darnell, and Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Your
Laura (1944), d. Otto Preminger.  This is a classic 1940s noir, and the draw for me to show up at the Saturday evening screening came from the promise of seeing an original nitrate print of the film; this early technology was replaced mid-century because of its flammability, and good copies of films in this format are not exactly abundant.  While I didn't see Black Narcissus, which was so popular at the festival, I did enjoy Laura quite a bit.  There were a few flaws in the print, causing it to skip on occasion, but it was dazzling to look at in its original black-and-white.  What I didn't appreciate before this screening was subtlety and genius of Dana Andrews in the role of detective who falls in love with the 'dead' woman of the title. Damn, I need to see more of Mr. Andrews.  
Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura

Chester Morris & Billie Dove in
Cock of the Air
Cock of the Air (1932), d. Tom Buckingham-- yes, this pre-code film is one large double entendre, and it was a gem.  The plot centered around the extended flirtation between an American WWI pilot, played by Chester Morris, and a vivacious French showgirl, played by Billie Dove.  Think Howard Hughes meets Ernst Lubitsch...which may not be surprising considering producer Hughes was the force behind the picture.  

During production there was a colossal battle between Hughes and the Hays Office, and about 17 minutes of footage was cut from the first commercial release.  The film has finally been restored by the Academy Film Archive, although the 17 missing minutes did not have the soundtrack intact.  In the restoration process, modern actors dubbed in the dialogue, and it was this version that we were treated to.  The transitions were seamless, and blended very well.  A small symbol of a film frame overlaid with a pair of scissors decorated the bottom of the film so that we would identify the restored missing footage, which I found very useful and not distracting.  Ironically, some scenes in the cut version of the film were at last as risque as those cut.  
Chester Morris was often a 'second lead' in films of this era, and I wasn't expecting to be blown away by his performance -- yet he combined the right amount of comedic double-takes and the like with breezy cockiness, and a scene that he completed with just a bath towel around his waist was especially enjoyable! I'm a new fan.  Billie Dove was a silent film leading lady who transitioned into talkies but whose film career did not last past the early 1930s.  She lit up the screen with her glamorous, sophisticated, cynical "Lilli de Rosseau'.  I will not reveal any more, but urge everyone to see this if it comes to a nearby cinema.

Other Sights and Sounds 
It was fascinating to spend time in the company of Lee Grant, a festival honoree, when she was interviewed at the 'Club TCM' -- a fascinating and determined actress, she fought through her time on the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era and picked up her career afterward, as not only an actor, but a director and producer.  At 90 years young, she is still going strong.  I also took the opportunity to see her Oscar-nominated early role in the film Detective Story.

Finally, I thought the TCM Film Festival organizers did a fabulous job honoring Robert Osborne, the face and heart of the channel since the early days, who passed away in early March.  There was a live panel tribute from the TCM staff, with standing room only, a short video tribute that played before every screening on Friday, and visuals like the one below, prominently on display.  While it was bittersweet not to have him there, his legacy was everywhere.  

Some final highlights in photos...
Flowers at Don Rickles star on the Walk of Fame
Rickles sadly passed away when we were in L.A.

Art deco 'Ticket Lobby' at Union Station in Los Angeles,
part of the 'TCM Movie Locations' Bus Tour. 

Shirley Temple costume display
at the Hollywood Museum


Celebratory dinner with film friends at Miceli's


Ruby slippers -- The Wizard of Oz
at the Hollywood Museum
Hand and foot prints of silent legend
Gloria Swanson, star of Sunset Boulevard

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Picks for April Boston-area Classic Film Screenings

So glad to be seeing some signs of spring around here in Massachusetts, despite the nor'easter that tried mightily to return us to winter.  On the other hand I can't say I'm not excited to be heading to LA and 80-degree sunny days.  As I prepare to jet off to classic movie paradise, I'm highlighting here my picks of classic film screenings around Greater Boston during April.

Harvard Film Archive
April 3, 7:00 PM.  This is so exciting -- the HFA is hosting a special presentation on studio-era stars and their night life escapades in Hollywood, by author and film historian Jim Heimann.  

Titled "Out With the Stars", the presentation includes Heimann's 'unrivalled collection of photos, postcards and menus...".   As the executive editor of TASCHEN America, a publisher of photo and memorabilia books, no doubt he'll have a treasure trove of stories and little seen items.  This seems like the perfect way to get in the mood for my trip to LA -- and I'm going to do my best to get my packing done early to make it there.
Jean Gabin & Marlene Dietrich -- photo from HFA
Sunday April 9th, PM Double Feature.  If you're around next weekend, consider spending some time exploring the darker side in this double feature of famous dystopian tales:  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film version directed by Truffaut, and George Orwell's 1984, the 1984 version starring the late, great, John Hurt.  Both films portray the fight against totalitarian regimes.  I've seen the latter, although many years ago, when I discovered John Hurt and wanted to see everything he made.  I've not seen Fahrenheit 451, but with Trauffaut at the helm and Julie Christie playing dual roles, I'm sure it's fascinating. 
7:00 PM
4:30 & 9:30
Somerville Theatre
Also, Sunday April 9th at 2:00, I'd recommend checking out The Wind from 1928.  It's a silent film and will be screened using a 35mm print, with live piano accompaniment from Somerville regular Jeff Rapsis.  Lillian Gish, one of the top female actresses of the silent era, is the star, playing a young woman relocated to live in unfamiliar territory, both figuratively and literally.  Swede Victor Sjöström directed.  I recently discovered a fantastic film by Ingmar Bergman that starred Sjöström, Wild Strawberries; I've not seen any of the films he directed, and I'm sorry I will miss this screening.
Lillian Gish in The Wind
Coolidge Corner Theatre
May 1, 7:00.  Ok, I'm cheating a little bit with the dates, but for advance planning this has to be included.  It's the next installment of the world premiere performance of a newly composed film score by select students of Berklee College of Music, known collectively as the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  This time, they return to comedy with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman.  This is a romp with boy-next-door Lloyd entering college and having some fun on the football team, all while attemping to shed his awkward persona to become a big man on campus and win his girl, played by lovely Jobyna Ralston.
Harold Lloyd bones up on how to succeed at college (IMDb)

If you haven't attended one of these BSFO premieres at the Coolidge, make sure you prioritize this screening -- it's truly a live performance with terrific artists, both timeless screen legends and budding music stars.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

And even more decisions -- my plan for TCM Film Festival 2017


I consider myself extremely fortunate to be off to sunny LA next week:  airline ticket, hotel, and festival pass are all ready to go--Hollywood, here I come!  My brain doesn't feel as fortunate at the moment, as I just completed going through the schedule day by day, time slot by time slot, trying to plan what films and events I'll attend.  Those of you who've attended the festival know that the struggle is real.  Last year, I did pretty well -- see my plan here and my post-conference blog report here.  Despite the pre-conference teeth-gnashing, I did find the exercise very helpful in minimizing the daily struggle once in Hollywood, and I'm hoping for the same result this year!

A post about the festival would not be complete without a mention of the patriarch of the network, the eminent Mr. Robert Osborne, who sadly passed away earlier this month at age 84, and will be sorely, sorely, missed.  He was the voice and face of TCM for so many years.  I was glad I had the opportunity to see him live at my first #TCMFF in 2013.  It's been announced that this year's festival is dedicated to Mr. Osborne's memory.  Good for them.

In reviewing the schedule and making selections, my general strategy is to program for myself a combination of the following -- a healthy dose of 'lesser-known' films for which this is a great opportunity; 'gap-filling' -- seeing classics that I'd missed until now; followed by old favorites that I would be thrilled to see on the big screen, and finally unique explorations of film history that the festival offers.  So here is my *tentative* plan for the festival. 

Thursday, April 6, PM

Early Show:  Thursday is opening night, and unless we move up considerably on the waiting list for the "Essential" pass, I doubt we'll be seeing Sidney Poitier's appearance for the screening of In the Heat of the Night.  Bummer!  There are some great films programmed in parallel, and I've seen all of them and don't have a strong desire to see them again this year (Some Like it Hot, Jezebel, Love Crazy) so the film history lover in me is thinking about going to the "Dawson City: Frozen Time" screening, in which selections of over 500 films that were lost but preserved due to being frozen under an old hockey rink near the Arctic Circle(!) will be shared.  I'm still on the overall fence on this so could be talked into Love Crazy (1941) with a favorite comedy team of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  

Late Show:  No question here, it's Harold and Maude.  Never seen this 1971 classic about May-December romance and am excited for it.  I'll be guzzling coffee beforehand.
Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as Harold and Maude
Friday, April 7, AM
So now that we are initiated, the marathon begins.  At the nine-o'clock hour, I still need to decide between Rafter Romance (1933) starring Ginger Rogers before she teamed with Fred Astaire, and Cry, The Beloved Country (1952) with honoree Sidney Poitier.

Late morning it's Beat the Devil (1953), which spoofs the international caper film, starring Jennifer Jones and Humphrey Bogart, and directed by John Huston.  It's new to me, but sounds hilarious.  

Friday, April 7, PM
The first screening of the afternoon for me is likely to be Barefoot in the Park (1967), the classic based on the play by Neil Simon, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  Again, filling a movie-viewing 'gap' .  The final film before dinner is likely to be my first silent of the festival, an early Ernst Lubitsch called So This is Paris (1926).  I rarely pass up the chance to see silents on the big screen with live musical accompaniment, and this is no exception.  On the piano will be Donald Sosin, who I've seen perform at my neighborhood Coolidge Corner Theatre, with his wife Joanna.  
Dana Andrews & Gene Tierney
in Laura 

My evening selections will be Vigil in the Night (1940), a hospital melodrama starring comedienne Carole Lombard in a rare dramatic role.  I heard the Lux Radio Theatre radio recording of this, which included one of my favorites, Herbert Marshall, as the doctor, and I'm eager to see the film on which it's based.  That George Stevens directed is a bonus here.  Wrapping up the evening will be the noir/mystery Laura (1944), my choice among a tantalizing line up.  I've seen it, but I'm eager to see it again.  

Saturday, April 8, AM
Likely feeling the need to get 15 more minutes of sleep, I'll start the morning at 9:15 with Stalag 17 (1953), directed by Billy Wilder, and another 'essential' I haven't yet seen.  Jeopardy host Alex Trebek will be on hand to introduce the film.  After brunch, also known as a bag of popcorn while standing in line, I'll head over to see The Last Picture Show (1971) at 12:15. I have a soft spot for Westerns since my 'Western Movie Summer' last year. Actor Ben Johnson, a noted veteran of director John Ford's films,who was late in his career, won an Oscar for his role here. And a very young Jeff Bridges also has a prominent role. Director Peter Bogdanovich got his name on the map with this film, and will be present to screen his 'director's cut' version.  I anticipate enjoying this one quite a bit. 
Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show
Saturday, April 8, PM
In the early afternoon, I'll take a break from movies and head to Club TCM to get to know Lee Grant in a Q&A discussion with the actress, and then stick around for a special presentation of home movies of famous classic Hollywood stars.  I've heard great things about this annual featured presentation.

After a quick dinner I plan on my first pre-code film of the festival, from 1931 it's Street Scene with lovely Sylvia Sidney, and directed by the fantastic King Vidor.  

The final film of the day is Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948) a dark comedy starring Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell.  The 'Czar of Noir' Eddie Mueller will be introducing the film.  

Sunday, April 9 AM
Assuming I'm still alive on Sunday, you'll find me first at Cock of the Air (1931), another pre-code, independently produced by maverick Howard Hughes, OR, at the film announced as the 'TBA' of the morning if it's more enticing.  Sticking with producer Hughes' work, the film version of The Front Page, also from 1931, is calling my name for the 11:30 slot.  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the play that inspired Hughes, and it also recently had a revival on Broadway with John Slattery, John Goodman and Nathan Lane.  It's a newsroom comedy with themes that are more than relevant today.  
Sunday, April 9, PM
Down the festival home stretch, after lunch I choose The Landlord (1970), a film with Lee Grant, whom I'll have gotten to know better from her live interview on Saturday afternoon.  The film is a 'dramedy' and directed by Hal Ashby, who also directed Harold and Maude.  If I'm in the mood for a bit of history, I might instead attend the "Republic Preserved" presentation about discoveries from 'Poverty Row' studio Republic Pictures.
At 4:30, it's time to wind things up with Detective Story (1951) with Kirk Douglas, William Bendix and Eleanor Parker, directed by William Wyler.  It will be hard to turn away from Singin' In the Rain, a picture I love but have seen recently, with Todd Fisher in attendance.  If my sentimental side wins out you'll find me there instead.
Harold Lloyd as a taxi driver, with Babe Ruth
 in Speedy
Last but definitely not least, is the classic silent clown Harold Lloyd in Speedy (1928), accompanied by the metallic sounds of the Alloy Orchestra, a group I've had the pleasure of seeing several times.  This film is perfect to kick off baseball season, as Babe Ruth, slugger and sometime movie actor, has a small role here!

After we've laughed ourselves silly, it will be time to party with all our friends, new and old, to wrap up the festival.  If I make it that far, and if I see half the films on this list, I'll consider the 2017 festival to be a success.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The inspiration for 'M' as told in Gordian Maugg's 2016 Fritz Lang

Today the Coolidge Corner Theatre screened the 2016 film Fritz Lang as part of their partnership with the Goethe-Institut Boston.  The film series focuses on new German cinema, with emphasis on works early in the careers of their directors.  I've enjoyed films in this series before, and was excited to see a film on the subject of the great Austrian director who made landmark films in Germany in the early years of cinema, and after his emigration to the U.S., found work in Hollywood, gave us noir classics such as The Big Heat and Scarlet Street.

Written and directed by Gordian Maugg, the film is a mixed bag.  I'll admit to enjoying it overall, for its gorgeous black and white cinematography, gauzy evocations of Weimar Germany, an extremely flawed but fascinating central character, strong performances, and references to and clips from the film M, Lang's first talkie.  For it is this film, that served as the inspiration for Herr Maugg, to create what appears to be a mostly fictionalized imagining of this particular segment of Lang's professional and personal journey.
Heino Ferch as Fritz Lang
The film starts with a middle-aged man seducing a young woman in a secluded park, and then stabbing her to death in the neck with a pair of scissors and then drinking her blood. Rapidly switching away from this brutal scene, we meet Herr Lang, who is between projects and seems to be unhappy with his career, and his wife, writer Thea von Harbou.  After reading a newspaper article about the search for a serial killer, he goes off to Düsseldorf to indulge his fascination with the case.   The head of the investigation just happens to be the police commissioner, Gennat, who investigated Lang 10 years earlier for the death of his first wife, Lisa.  It's never made clear in the film if he shot her, or she committed suicide after discovering her husband in the arms of his lover (later to become Frau Lang).  [According to the notes at the end of the film, what really happened to Lisa never came to light.]  Once the serial killer, Peter Kürten, is found--it's a real case, read about it here--Lang is granted interview privileges, and when drawing out Kürten, begins to relive his own scarred past (childhood family trauma, PTSD from WWI, etc.).  The parallels between the two men are underscored, but they ultimately chose different outlets to channel their repressed anger and anguish.  Ultimately, Lang produces his masterpiece, M, from all these experiences. 
Peter Lorre in M
Apparently, most of the film's plot is speculation.  Lang never revealed much about his early life, and denied even that M was based on the Kürten case.  I'm not sure what Maugg's intentions were.  A primary theme of M, that of questioning vigilante justice, is not dealt with in the modern film. I did take away from screening that we were to believe Lang himself empathized with Kürten, as he ultimately did in Peter Lorre's character of the child-killer in M.  As the 'older' Lang, Heino Ferch was terrific.  He created a portrait of a self-important artist, a national celebrity, who demanded and got what he wanted.  He snorted cocaine and was prone to risky sex and destructive rages.  Certainly, this was not what I had imagined Lang to be like, and the film obviously did not intend for the audience to sympathize with him.  That is, at least until near the end where he begins to become more human, facing his own demons through his interactions with Kürten.  Another way this film parallels M.
Cross-fade of Peter Lorre in M and Samuel Finzi as Peter Kürten
The structure of the film is non-linear, with surrealistic imaginings and flashbacks in time.  Inserted throughout are what appears to be newsreel footage of life in early 20th century Germany, and clips from M.  A short article I read on Maugg mentioned his specialty as a director is mixing archival footage with fictional scenes.  The black-and-white cinematography evoked Lang's own films.  The primary questions I had when I left the theater were:  Was Fritz Lang really this bombastic, chauvinistic, and unpleasant?  If so, why?  What really did happen to his first wife?  All in all, a dark exploration of the early days of cinema that was at least an entertaining couple of hours at the cinema, if not providing any trustworthy insights into the enigma of Lang's early life.  

Fritz Lang (from mubi.com)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Greater Boston's March Classic Movie Scene

A few days behind because of a vacation in a warmer climate (!), but there are some exciting classic film screenings to check out this month.

First, my neighborhood Coolidge Corner Theatre comes back with another entry in the 'Sounds of Silents' series this Tuesday, March 7th, at 7:00.  It's billed as the comedic 'Battle of the Century', featuring two short films by the great Buster Keaton, going head to head with a very early short film from France, and a film from the classic duo of Laurel & Hardy.  The headliner is, of course, Battle of the Century (1927) with Laurel & Hardy; this film until now was considered a partially lost film, but it has been recovered and restored just in 2015.  So seeing this film at the cinema will be a rare treat.  The 'battle' referred to in the title apparently at least in part relates to an epic pie throwing scene (in fact, the blurb for the film at the Coolidge indicates there may be some *actual* pie-throwing antics at the screening.  Note to self: bring a change of clothes!).

However, first on the bill is The Dancing Pig (1907), a four-minute French film (Pathé Frères) featuring, you guessed it, a porcine actor light on his hooves.  The Coolidge website says no animals were harmed in making this film, and I really hope that's the case.

Once we're warmed up, we're treated to one of my favorite Buster Keaton shorts, Cops (1922), an absurdist masterpiece which in which poor Buster tries to elude several dozen traffic cops chasing him on foot through some city streets.  It's one of the greatest, and funniest, chase scenes ever.   This is followed by The Electric House, also 1922.  This one shows Buster gamely but ineptly trying to wire a house to do all kinds of tricks, such as setting up a toy train to bring food to the dinner table.

All films will be accompanied live by keyboard/percussion musicians Joanna Seaton and Donald Sosin.
Buster Keaton & Virginia Fox in The Electric House
Fast forwarding to Tuesday March 28th at 7:00 PM, the Coolidge will screen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) as part of its Science on Screen series.  For this screening, environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben will speak on his specialty, climate change, prior to the screening.  The film of course is the classic John Ford/Henry Fonda black and white interpretation of the John Steinbeck novel about the dust bowl during the 1930s and the migration of the 'Okies.'  I recently saw this for the first time and was blown away (pun intended!) by the cinematography.  Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of 'Ma'.
Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath
Moving across the river to Cambridge, the Brattle Theatre has announced a 'Year of Women in Cinema'.  Woo-hoo!  Patrons will be treated to multiple series showcasing the films that were significant for the women who contributed to them.  First up, just this week is Part 1, 'The Women who Built Hollywood'.  You can see the entire list here, several of which have already been screened, but Tuesday and Wednesday March 7 & 8 will feature pre-code 35 mm films from the 1930s: Red-Headed Woman (1932) -- screenwriter Anita Loos, starring the lovely Jean Harlow without her usual 'platinum' locks; The Big House (1930), a prison drama with screenplay by Frances Marion, Man's Castle with Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy, edited by Viola Lawrenceand Bombshell (1933)another Jean Harlow comedy (her blond locks are back), edited by Margaret Booth.   I really enjoy Jean Harlow -- to those less familiar with her work, her name might evoke glamour and sophistication, and rightly so, but she also conveys sweetness, innocence, and girl-next-door qualities that add to her captivating screen presence.
Gorgeous 1930s 'bombshell' Jean Harlow
I'm really looking forward to more series in this year-long celebration of women in cinema, and continue to highlight these, especially when special guests will be present.

Patricia Neal & Andy Griffith
Just up Massachusetts Ave. ("Mass ave") in the bustling Davis Square is the Somerville Theatre, which is also offering some classics that should be on your list.  First, on Wednesday, March 15th at 7:30 is A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.  It tells the story of a country musician becoming a TV star, who then reveals all kinds of megalomaniacal characteristics (hmmm...).  Not the guy we know from TV's Mayberry.  It's a film I haven't seen, but would love to.  

Then on Saturday March 18 are two silent features accompanied by the terrific Alloy Orchestra.  The first is Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926) at 4:00 PM, and the second, at 8:00 PM, is the German silent Varieté (1925) with renowned actor Emil Jannings.  The latter is the same film screened at the Coolidge last year with the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  I wrote about that here.  It will be interesting to see what the Alloy Orchestra does with it.
Douglas Fairbanks doing what he does best, in The Black Pirate