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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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sidney Poitier Directs: Buck and the Preacher (1972)

The great Sir Sidney Poitier is celebrating his 90th birthday tomorrow, Feb 20, and in honor of his unique, distinguished career, this weekend a number of movie bloggers are participating in the '90 Years of Sidney Poitier' blogathon, hosted by Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. Check out all the fabulous posts here.  I'm contributing a review of his first directorial effort, Buck and the Preacher, in which he also starred and produced along with his good friend Harry Belafonte.

In 1972 Poitier was an established star with his most iconic films behind him.  For this first directorial effort, Poitier worked in the film genre which enthralled him the most growing up -- the Western.  In fact, his earliest dreams of Hollywood involved him becoming a cowboy.  This immigrant from the Bahamas, who epitomized the American dream when he, in fact, rose from abject poverty, without a formal education, to the pinnacle of fame, chose the most American cinematic form to tell a story that illuminates a little known piece of African-American history.  Buck and the Preacher entertains and educates, and is a must-watch for fans of Poitier, Belafonte, or Western movies. 

Poitier wasn't originally supposed to direct the film.  His long-time friend actor/producer Harry Belafonte reached out to him with a movie he wanted to make based on story by Drake Walker about African-Americans in the West.  Belafonte and Poitier would co-star and co-produce the film, and engaged Ernest Kinoy to finish the script.  The director they hired was Joseph Sargent, whose credits at that point were mostly television serials.  Early on, though, Sargent was fired when it was apparent to the producers that their epic vision of black heroes wasn't being adequately captured.  Long interested in taking up directing, Poitier did not hesitate to slide into the director's chair at Belafonte's urging, after some difficult negotiations with the Columbia studio execs. 

The narrative is a fictional account of real events -- former Southern slave families migrating west (primarily to Kansas) during the Reconstruction era, only to find themselves embattled by white bounty hunters paid to 'convince' these 'exodusters' to return to the South as sharecroppers to struggling white landowners.  The character of Buck (Poitier) is the wagon-master making a living helping the emigres, and goes on the lam after a shoot-out with a particularly nasty gang of mercenaries led by Deshay, played by Cameron Mitchell.  The gang is after Buck when he happens upon the itinerant con man-cum-preacher (Belafonte).  At first wary of each other, they forge a partnership when the Buck finds his strength is a match for his latest foes only when paired with the wiliness of the Preacher.  The two team up to lead a group of Louisiana emigres through dangerous Indian country while avoiding the mercenary gang.  In an underwritten character, Buck's wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee) only wants Buck to give up his dangerous profession so they can make a life for themselves.
Poitier as 'Buck' coming across a scene of carnage and destruction
In the early 1970s, traditional Westerns were in a decline, and the revisionist Westerns, in response to the war in Vietnam and changing cultural mores, arguably had peaked as well (think The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and many more).  But films marketed to black audiences ("Blaxploitation'), and films with significant African-American characters were gaining traction with the broader market. Both Belafonte and Poitier were uniquely positioned, as civil rights champions and powerful stars in Hollywood, to capitalize on this trend and make a film that they felt would reclaim some of the history of African descendants in a new land.  

In plot outline and thematically, Buck and the Preacher is a very traditional Western.  You have your heroes, or anti-heroes (cowboys or lawmen in other films), defending the helpless settlers against the powerful (ranchers, railroaders, etc.), who wish to maintain an older order, and must combat external threats (Indians) as well.  The good guys succeed due to their smarts, their willingness to fight and kill, their understanding of their enemy, and of Indians.  They are at odds with female characters over the choices they make.  Shades of Shane, Rio Grande, etc.  At the same time, here the Indians were portrayed as equals to the blacks, with legitimate claims to their land on which passage had to be negotiated.  The primary discontinuity here is that the besieged and their heroes are black, underscoring the fact that blacks in the West in the 19th century were not all servants or marginal to the action of settling the West.  In parallel, the white characters, with a minor exception, were brutal villains who deserve to be cut down at the hands of the former slaves.  These paradoxes didn't escape the notice of critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote at the time "the film is a loose, amiable, post-Civil War Western with a firm if not especially severe Black Conscience."
Our heroes (foreground) negotiate with leaders of the Native population (Enrique Lucero and Julie Robinson)
While Mr. Canby goes on to lightly praise the film, and while I don't totally disagree with his assessment, my experience of the film was that it was more than 'loose and amiable.'  As director/storyteller, Poitier kept a kinetic pace, with fast editing, especially in the early scenes where the first shootout occurs in the first 10 minutes.  Interesting high and low camera angles and stunning scenic visuals (the film was shot in Durango, Mexico) keep your attention.  There are some outstanding scenes, including a showdown in a whorehouse where our heroes cunningly ambush their enemies playing cards and visiting upstairs whores.  And great tension is built and released multiple times in this and other confrontations along the journey.  The soundtrack by jazz musician Benny Carter adds a bluesy-style jangle that punctuates key moments. (The main theme is on YouTube here).  There also is quite a bit of humor, especially with Belafonte's portrayal of the Preacher (of the 'High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church').  Contrasted with solemn, stoic Buck, Belafonte's Preacher is all slithery energy -- when not capturing him jumping around, the camera lingers on his expressive face, where all sorts of contortions play out.  Yet he has guts, as when he doesn't hesitate to punch Buck in the face for stealing his horse.
Belafonte as the 'Preacher'
As Poitier served as the film's co-producer, director, and star, we learn much about Poitier's sensibilities, his desire to do honor to his kinfolk of African origin while advancing the art of cinema. In my opinion, he succeeded. In addition, black cultural critics, including author and critic Nelson George of the Village Voice, generally praised the film. Unfortunately, while doing modestly at the box office, the film did not turn a profit, and Columbia did not renew Poitier's production contract.  Perhaps more unfortunately, Hollywood did not pick up the main threads in the story to produce more films exploring the life of African-Americans in the West.  While Poitier apparently was not completely satisfied with the final film, and found his own performance 'dull', he thoroughly enjoyed his experience as a director.  He went on to further hone his directorial skills, with a total of nine film credits to his name.

A final note: Harry Belafonte is also celebrating his 90th birthday soon -- on March 1st.  Happiest of days to both esteemed entertainers!  Enjoy the first encounter these two have in the film, courtesy of TCM, here.

Sources:
George, Nelson, Blackface: Reflections on African Americans in the Movies; Cooper Square Press, 2002.
Goudsouzian, Aram, Sidney Poitier:  Man , Actor, Icon; University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Slotkin, Richard, Gunfighter Nation; University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
TCM.com article on Buck and the Preacher

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Glenn Close is Norma Desmond again

From Sunsetboulevardthemusical.com

Sunset Boulevard, Twisting boulevard
Secret of the rich, A little scary
Sunset Boulevard, Tempting boulevard
Waiting there to swallow the unwary

Don Black & Christopher Hampton, lyricists


Old Hollywood has made a return trip to NYC, with 47th and Broadway transforming into LA's Sunset Boulevard for a few weeks, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is revived for a limited run.  Starring in the role that brought her a Tony 20 years ago, is Glenn Close.  I was thrilled to be able to catch a preview last weekend.

In the mid-1990s Lloyd Webber embarked upon an ambitious project--to give the classic story Sunset Boulevard the operatic treatment. As a musical, it follows very closely the plot and script of Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir masterpiece starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim.  (I remember seeing a touring version of the musical, then, in Cincinnati, before I really knew much about the film and certainly before I became a classic film enthusiast.) The English National Opera revived it last year with a semi-staged production directed by Lonny Price, and Close was engaged to reprise her success, along with a supporting cast of stellar singing actors.  The same production and cast opened today on Broadway.  With the old Hollywood image projections, the bright colors and sounds, and star power, sitting there in the audience I felt a connection to my recent experiences of the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.  
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond (from Broadway.com)
The musical would not make the impression it does without the orchestra.  This production featured unusually large orchestra by Broadway standards --40 pieces-- which was situated on stage, doubling as the Paramount orchestra during the scene at the famous studio.  At times I was worried the actors would knock over some of the musicians, they got so close, running back and forth across the expanse of the stage.  Yet no such disaster happened, the players never broke character, and they made a wonderful sound throughout.  The multi-level set was minimalist, but made ample use of image projection on a partially opaque screen, dramatic contrast lighting, movable furniture, and the occasional luxury automobile.  Costumes appropriately evoked the late 1940s with Ms. Close's costumes particularly flowing and glittery and spectacular.  
Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty, and
Fred Johanson as Max
Ms. Close delivered a nuacned portrayal despite her ability to dominate the stage.  Interviewed for Playbill magazine, she discussed how she feels differently about the character now, after 20 more years of life experience, and had reached back once again to the film for inspiration.  It seemed to me she projected considerable world weariness, perhaps more than Gloria Swanson did in the film, which isn't a criticism of either portrayal.  As mentioned, her costumes were appropriately over the top; in the Paramount scene, her strikingly black and white ensemble was in direct contrast to the earth tones of the rehearsing movie actors, making it all the more obvious how she really no longer belonged in 'modern' Hollywood.

The rest of the cast was first rate.  Michael Xavier had youthful swagger as Joe Gillis, and Siobhan Dillon was perky and believable as Betty Schaefer.   I especially enjoyed Fred Johanson as Max, who despite looking like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Nosferatu (!), had an incredibly powerful and resonant bass voice.  All the best lines from the film were there, and, judging by the audience response, were eagerly anticipated, and greatly appreciated.  A standing ovation greeted the cast at the end.  If that was any indication, this Broadway run should be big.

A few snapshots of the set:



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Feb '17 Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

It's now truly the deep dark winter despite the fact that days are slowly and visibly getting longer.  To brighten those days, there are a number of tempting offerings of classic film on the big screen.

The Brattle Theatre
The Brattle gets the prize this month for arguably the greatest number and diversity of its classic film screenings.

Weds Feb 8: A 'special event' screening of Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 film Targets.  This stars Boris Karloff as a B-movie star dealing with an encounter with a mass-murderer in a drive in (!).  I've not seen this one, but being familiar with Karloff's early work as Frankenstein's monster and most recently, the night club owner in Night World, I would enjoy seeing him in his late career.  The film will be introduced live by musician and writer John Darnielle, whose novel Universal Harvester references the film.
Boris Karloff (left) and Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote, directed,
and acted in Targets from 1968
St. Valentine is appropriately celebrated the week of Feb 10-15 with the 'Great Romances' series. A few old favorites should be savored:

Sun, Feb 10:  Roman Holiday (1953) with two of the most gorgeous and equally talented people in 1950s Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  This film is paired in a double feature with The Philadelphia Story (1940), with more gorgeousness and talent in Katharine Hepburn (no relation), James Stewart and, ahem, Cary Grant.  I say this is about a 'perfect dose' of classic Hollywood confection in one day.  Both are romantic comedies bursting with joy, fun and wit.  Both films are 35mm prints.

Tues Feb 14 & Weds Feb 15Casablanca (1942)  Here's looking at you; happy 75th birthday to this cinema icon.  I spoke too soon about Hollywood perfection -- many would argue this is it.  At least it has the most perfect ending in all film.  Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid star, along with an exceptional supporting cast, in this tale of romance and resistance in German occupied Morocco during WWII.
Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Ingrid Bergman
discuss politics and love in Casablanca
The Coolidge Corner Theatre
Mon Feb 13  The Lady Eve (1941).  Of course, it's another romantic film, this time starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist trying to make a play for naive Henry Fonda aboard a cruise ship, but then things go in all kinds of unexpected directions.  Charles Coburn is great as Stanwyck's partner in crime!
Barbara Stanwyck gets a little help from Henry Fonda

The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
This is the first time I've featured this venue in my blog, but they occasionally show classics amongst their film series.  This month is devoted to a retrospective of the great director Stanley Kubrick, who got his start in the 1950s but directed all the way to the late 1990s, his last feature being Eyes Wide Shut.  However, he only directed 16 films, and all of them are screening.  The Kubrick retrospective is apparently an annual event.  The series start tomorrow, Feb 1, and goes through Feb 25.  I noted:

Thurs Feb 2 and Fri Feb 10Killer's Kiss (1955), a tidy noir (67 minutes) also written by Kubrick, about a washed up boxer.  I've not seen it, and it's a lesser known Kubrick, so worth checking out.

Thurs Feb 23 and Sat Feb 25: Barry Lyndon (1975).  It's not from the classic era, but I LOVE this film.  It's a sumptuously shot and terrifically acted period drama starring Ryan O'Neal as an opportunist who tries to work his way into the upper echelons of society at the expense of others.
A scene from Barry Lyndon
Those who missed out celebrating the 100th birthday of Kirk Douglas could make up for that by attending either Paths of Glory (1957) on Sun Feb 5th and Thurs Feb 9, or Spartacus (1960) on Weds Feb 15.