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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.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Getting to know Busby Berkeley - thanks to the Harvard Film Archive

As a new classic film fan, after I heard the name just once or twice, the first image my mind conjured of Busby Berkeley came directly from the improbable sing-song throwback-style name.  It was an image of a simpler time, but also one of extravagance and fun, decadence and flamboyance. In a vague sort of way I'd picked up that this man was responsible for a number of spectacles in the early years of Hollywood. And that much was true.  He was a musical-number choreographer responsible for kaleidoscopic, dazzling, often surreal visual images of human bodies, mostly leggy women, punctuating depression-era tales such as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 or 1935, or 1937, into the MGM musical heyday of For Me and My Gal, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game.
Berkeley (1895-1976) as a young man
Thanks to the retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive over the past several weeks, Mr. Berkeley's image has come into much clearer focus for me.  Here's a collection of some of my observations thanks to the several films (all from the 1930s) that I treated myself to there, as well as a rare screening of a French television interview (Cineastes de notre temps) with Mr. Berkeley in the 1970s.
A typical image of chorus girls in formation as shot from above.  
Interesting Facts from Berkeley's Biography and Career 
  • While born in LA, he actually spent a few of his early years in my adopted state of Massachusetts, and toiled away in the legitimate theater locally, before moving to Broadway, and then Hollywood.
  • The inspiration for his complex, timed dance maneuvers was stated to have emerged from his days during WWI in the army setting up marching companies of soldiers.  Interestingly, in the French TV interview, he dramatically plays down this influence.  Read more here in this New Yorker piece by Richard Brody.
  • By using the camera, through its placement and movement capability to show performances that could *only* be done by the new medium of the moving picture.  In fact, many of his early movies had 'backstage' narratives, allowing multiple moments of stage performances, which would morph, right before your eyes, from rather static two dimensional views to brilliant, ethereal, multi-dimensional moving images disconnected from time, or even gravity  A good example of this can be seen here in this scene from Gold Diggers of 1933.
  • He advanced from choreographer to director, but the later films in which he directs aren't quite as visually spectacular.
  • He struggled with alcoholism, was married six times, and was responsible for the death of three people from a car accident, which haunted him for many years, and was said to have cost him at least two Academy Awards.
  • His work underwent a rediscovery of sorts in the 1970s.  
The Films (those designated with * are new to me from this retrospective)

*Night World (1932) Directed by Hobart Henley for Universal, this one is a dark, *very* pre-code tale of love and loss in a seedy speakeasy.  It stars Lew Ayres, fresh off his lauded performance in All Quiet on the Western Front, Mae Clarke as the showgirl with the heart of gold, and Boris Karloff as the unpleasant owner of the speakeasy.  George Raft also appears in a small role.  There is a staged number in the middle of the film in which a small group of young chorus girls perform a musical number as the nightclub's entertainment, and some of the usual Berkeley touches, ceiling camera, camera through the parallel legs of the girls, etc., are featured.  While not a spectacular film, it's entertaining for it's 58 minute run time.  Lew Ayres was a terrific drunk, and Clarence Muse, an African-American actor, played the club's doorman dealing with a personal problem.  Muse's character was sympathetic and well-drawn, significantly more so than the typical minority character of that era.

Alice Brady & Adolphe Menjou
*Gold Diggers of 1935 No doubt the best in this series is the first Gold Diggers of 1933, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one, Berkeley's first sole directorial feature.  Now that the Production Code was being enforced, much of the pre-code charm of the earlier film was off limits, and a new kind of charm had to be found.  In this case, the film played much more as a screwball comedy, a genre that was on the rise at this time in the mid-1930s.  However, the pacing, musical numbers, and comedy all are in harmony for good time.  Dick Powell is back, but this time his leading lady is Gloria Stuart, a gifted actress but without the infectious personality of a Joan Blondell.  I loved Alice Brady, who'd won me over with her portrayal of Carole Lombard's zany mother in My Man Godfrey.  Here she is...wait for it...a zany mother...who is frugal to the extreme, but wants to see her daughter (Stuart) married off to a wealthy but hopelessly clueless snuff-box historian, of all things.  The family is vacationing in an up-state resort hotel, with Adolphe Menjou as the hired producer to put on a show, and Powell is a hotel employee who has greater ambitions.  Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Glenda Farrell, and Grant Mitchell all shine in memorable secondary roles.  

Footlight Parade I saw this one during last year's "Members' Weekend" at the HFA.  In addition to the fabulous choreographed numbers, most near the end of this spectacle, I recommend this one for a young James Cagney in a pre-code in which he was NOT playing a gangster.  As a theater impresario he was a blast to watch. 

*Fast and Furious  This was a relatively minor offering, not to be confused with a series of films from earlier this century starring Vin Diesel, that I saw as the second of a double feature with Night World.  Berkeley directs, ably, but there are no major musical numbers.  It's a cut rate "Thin Man" style murder mystery with sparring husband-and-wife detectives, here played by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern.  There was a fair amount of slapstick humor with a lion loose in a hotel (the MGM lion??).

*Whoopee (1933)The last film I saw in the retrospective was Berkeley's first.  The HFA located a digital version of a restored print, which looked pretty good, with its two-strip technicolor.   This is a decidedly racist Eddie Cantor vehicle, with a relative mild blackface scene, but outside of those parts I found it hilarious and highly entertaining nonetheless.  A comic/western/romance, this was a big hit on Broadway and the film version was also a winner with the public.
Eddie Cantor as a rich hypochondriac with his smitten nurse,
Ethel Shutta (photo from IMDb)
The other Berkeley films I've seen are:   *42nd Street (1933);  Gold Diggers of 1933Roman Scandals (1933).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Favorite Herbert Marshall Performances

Herbert Marshall is another one of those names that will elicit blanks stares from most everyone today.  When Turner Classic Movies (TCM) included him their lineup of featured stars in the 2014 edition of 'Summer Under the Stars," it was the first I'd heard of him, but after I saw a just few of those films, I became a big fan. Many will cite his fine, deep velvety baritone voice with the upper class British accent as his best asset, and perhaps rightly so.  But given the right vehicle and quality direction, he was a compelling, strong screen presence with ability to portray so much more than the staid, suave, and often cuckolded gentleman roles into which he was typecast.  I noted with distinct pleasure that TCM had scheduled a day of his rather obscure 1930s films tomorrow (Jan 19th), and I will be looking forward to watching the ones I haven't yet seen -- Make Way for A Ladyand Woman Against Woman on DVR, of course.   In honor of Mr. Marshall, and in celebration of his recent turn on TCM, I was inspired to share my favorite five performances of his here.
 Marshall was born in England in 1890 to a theatrical family, but came to the profession only after he gave up a career in accounting shortly after college.  He then enlisted to fight in WWI and was a casualty of fighting in France, where he lost a leg (some reports say it was his right, but observing his movements closely, it seems to me it may be his left; he never really discussed it publicly). He resumed his acting career after a long convalescence and learning to walk with a prosthetic.  He came to Hollywood in the early 1930s and rose to relative stardom with leading man roles as a free-lance actor who never signed a long term contract. Later in life he had numerous character roles and starred in many radio programs. He was known as a polite, charming, if not an attention-seeking personality. He had five marriages, and a somewhat scandalous romance with Gloria Swanson in the mid-1930s, which broke up his marriage to English actress Edna Best.  He had two daughters, the first his daughter with Best, who became actress Sarah Marshall.  He continued to work almost until the end of his life; he died at age 75 in 1966.

Here are five performances of his I've enjoyed the most, so far, in chronological order.

Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie
and Herbert Marshall as Geoff Hammond
1) The Letter (1929, D.: Jean de Limur)  This is not the much more famous 1940 William Wyler film of the same Somerset Maugham novel, which Mr. Marshall also starred alongside Bette Davis.  No, this early talkie was a pre-code version starring doomed actress Jeanne Eagels, and Marshall as the lover.  (In the 1940 version, the lover was not an actual role on screen).  This was a very early film role for Marshall, and he sinks his teeth into the few moments of screen time he has -- he comes across as a caustic, privileged young cad who is eager to move on from his dalliance with Mrs. Crosbie (Eagels). He does have a few moments of tenderness with his new lover, Lady Tsen Mei.  I wasn't as impressed with Eagels, and thought Reginald Owen was one-dimensional as the husband, but it's interesting to watch in comparison to the later version; the ending, in particular is distinctly different.

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins
in Trouble in Paradise
2)  Trouble in Paradise (1932, D.: Ernst Lubitsch)  This sophisticated comedy is considered one of the best pre-code films and one of Lubitsch's best, as well.  It's in my top five favorite films of all time; in fact, it may just be perfect.  From the romantic love triangle, to the clever visual and verbal innuendo, some sight gags, terrific pacing, and spot on performances that were ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this film.  In the first example of Marshall's talent being brought to the fore by the skill of a good director, as jewel thief Gaston Monescu, he is perfectly understated, yet slyly comic here.  He's more than handsome and charming enough to cause two gorgeous women (Kay Francis & Miriam Hopkins) to fall for him, believably so.  His line readings are a delight.  One of my favorite exchanges: Lily:  "Who ARE you?"  Gaston: "You know the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?" Lily: "Monescu!"  Marshall worked for Lubitsch again in 1937's Angel, but that did not have nearly the same magic.

Marshall and Margaret Sullavan bond over coffee in The Good Fairy
3) The Good Fairy (1935, D.: William Wyler). Another comic role of a different kind came to Marshall in this William Wyler film, starring Margaret Sullavan in the "title" role.  It's a screwball gem, scripted by soon-to-be director Preston Sturges -- if that provides context about the quality of the writing -- from the play by Ferenc Molnar.  Marshall is a delight as a poor legal scholar who is too "honest" to be successful and becomes the unwitting beneficiary of Margaret Sullavan's 'good deed'.  He is definitely NOT suave, and has a nervous habit of running a comb once or twice through his beard.  He also has a hilarious solo scene in which he prattles excitedly about a new pencil sharpener (!).  His chemistry with Sullavan is very strong, and the two make a very lovely couple.  Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen are amusing as variations of their stock comic characters.

4.  The Little Foxes (1941, D.: William Wyler).  Another Wyler film -- he clearly was a terrific director for Marshall.  This one was his second film with Bette Davis, and he played victimized husband Horace Giddens to her poisonous Regina Giddens in this adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play about a dysfunctional Southern family.  The tone is mostly dark throughout, but it's a riveting production with good performances by the entire cast.  Marshall, by turns warm and sympathetic, then angry and righteous, plays the role of a dying man so convincingly that you feel his pain almost viscerally.  His subtlety as an actor is revealed when you know he wants to trust his family, but because he's smart, he cannot hide the growing realization of dishonest motives and crimes being perpetrated.  Interestingly, Davis and Marshall had a warm relationship off-screen.
Davis & Marshall in The Little Foxes
5.  High Wall (1947, D. Curtis Bernhardt).  In this noir, Robert Taylor is a veteran with PTSD, employed by Marshall, who finds himself accused of murder.  It's a psychological thriller as well, with Audrey Totter as the doctor who tries to help Taylor.  In this one, Marshall shows his ability to be slimy, two-faced, and scary.  It takes some questionable narrative turns, and I'm not enamored of Taylor's performance particularly, but it showcases the often underappreciated range of Marshall, who in my opinion, really steals the movie.  

Don't miss him in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Little White Frock," or his appearance on the popular "What's My Line?" TV show in which, as the 'Mystery Guest, he gracefully responds to Dorothy Kilgallen's question as to whether he considers himself a 'character man,' with, "The day has come, yes."  Video link is below.
Finally, for a greater appreciation of his fight to overcome his war injury, read this article published in 2014 by SAG-AFTRA, image below:

Monday, January 2, 2017

Classic Film Obsessions 2016-- The One Year Blog Anniversary Post

First, excuse me while I congratulate myself 😊. I started this blog exactly one year ago, and 12 months and 44 posts later, it's still going! I had a lot of fun with it, and extended my connections into the fantastic community of classic cinephiles and bloggers, which was my hope, as stated in my very first post.  I was thrilled and humbled to join the Classic Movie Blog Association, enhance my relationship with Turner Classic Movies through participation in the annual film festival, and membership in the Backlot fan club, and have made many friendships in the community, connecting in person as well as online.

I'm establishing a tradition of posting a look back at my 'obsessions' over the course of the last year, and sharing my blog resolutions for the next year.  In 2016 I watched 162 new-to-me movies, slightly under my 2015 total of 178.

Classic Film Obsessions for 2016

Heflin won his only Oscar for his
supporting role in the gangster drama
  Johnny Eager (1941).  Here he shows
off his unique way of holding a cigarette
Van Heflin
Singling out Heflin likely doesn't surprise those who a) know me in person or on social media, or b) who've looked at my blog label list and see his name at the top in large font.  My obsession with the Oklahoma-born Heflin grew from my 2015 obsession with Alan Ladd, as they starred together in the classic Western Shane.  I wrote about Shane for my first ever blogathon, and while I didn't focus on Heflin there, over the course of the year I watched more and more of his films until my love was in full bloom.  I marveled at his versatility and talent, admired his intellectual approach to his craft, and found him a magnetic screen presence.  Also this year, his first-ever biography was published, which I reviewed here, and I featured and/or reviewed five of his films.   I did however, watch a great deal more from his filmography that I didn't write about, and of those, I'll recommend a few, in chronological order:  A Woman Rebels (1936)--this one's an interesting melodrama and vehicle mainly for Katharine Hepburn, who was a friend of Heflin's and helped get him his role.  He really isn't entirely recognizable here and doesn't register strongly, but it's his first role, and one of only six he made in the 1930s.  In the 1940s there are so many good ones, including Johnny Eager, but for a change of pace he is a riot in the comedies Presenting Lily Mars (1943) with Judy Garland, and The Feminine Touch (1941)with Kay Francis, Don Ameche, and Rosalind Russell, proving that this "craggy-faced" Western and Noir star could hold his own in light comedy.  In the 1950s, his best performance for my money may be in The Prowler (1951), where he is a seriously flawed protagonist.  I loved him also in the Rod Serling drama Patterns (1956), and for an all-around fantastic film, check out 3:10 to Yuma (1957), in which Heflin stars alongside a terrific Glenn Ford in this psychological Western.  There are many in his filmography still waiting for me, assuming this obsession continues in 2017.

I was delighted to listen to a recent interview with his daughter, actress Vana O'Brien here, in which, among other things, she commented that her father hated 'over-acting.'  For the most part I found his performances appropriately understated, which adds to the enjoyment of his work.  I hope that someday soon Ms. O'Brien will come to a film festival (TCM??) to share her remembrances of her father and his life and career -- she would receive a tremendous and appreciative reception.

The Western, and John Ford
Following the fun that was the 2015 'Summer of Darkness' dedicated to film noir, I dedicated myself to learning more about the Western in the summer of 2016 -- a vast film genre to be sure, but one most certainly under-represented in my film log. I listened to a recorded online course on the subject, and watched a number of films spanning eight decades, and dipped into several books on the subject. Check my posts from June-August for my thoughts on several of these films.

The genesis of this idea flowed from the delight I took in my first viewing of John Ford's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) at the 2016 Turner Classic Festival with a crowd of appreciative fans.   I grew to better know and appreciate much of Ford's work this past year, and began to internalize his style and approach.  What a phenomenal treasure he left us in the 140 films he directed.  Additionally, through Ford, I was introduced to the father and son acting duo of Harry Carey and Harry Carey Jr., who devoted their lives to giving us great entertainment in this great American film tradition.  I wrote about them here.
John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendariz
star in Ford's 3 Godfathers from 1948.
New to me this year were the classic Westerns High Noon, My Darling Clementine, Destry Rides Again, and one of the earliest Westerns ever, The Great Train Robbery (1903).  I came to appreciate the acting talent of Dean Martin by watching Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959); in fact, to me, Martin is the main reason to watch this film.  Lesser-known but interesting Westerns I caught this year include The Spoilers (1942) with Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, and The Texan (1930), starring a young Gary Cooper, previewing how he would come to dominate the genre!
Dean Martin as the alcoholic lawman 'Dude' in Rio Bravo

Berklee Silent Film Orchestra
Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz
 Of  Film Scoring
@ Berklee School
(photo from Berklee School)
Since I'm a fan of music as well as film, attending a screening of a silent film with live musical accompaniment claims a spot in the top five of my favorite things.  When the accompaniment is a local orchestra premiering their own student-composed score, it's a treat that is absolutely unique to the Boston area.  I wrote about the unique process of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a group of top students from Berklee School of Music Film Scoring Department, here.  Well, actually, the secret has gotten out and the reputation of the BSFO has taken them to the prestigious San Francisco Silent Film Festival for two years now, where they've gotten rave reviews.

This year, I saw the world premiere of their score to Variete (1925), at one of our local art houses -- The Coolidge Corner Theatre, which is the BSFO's local partner and features them regularly through their 'Sounds of Silents' rep program.  It's been announced that Kino-Lorber is producing a new DVD of this film featuring the BSFO score; I hope it's available soon!  I also made it to the Coolidge the week of Halloween for their encore performance of their original score to Phantom of the Opera, the Lon Chaney classic.  I don't know what original film score the 2017 students are working on, but I will be sure to feature it here, as I don't miss these live premieres.
The magnificent 'Theatre 1' at the Coolidge 
My 2017 Blog Resolutions
Like most humans, I don't have much luck with annual resolutions (!), but here goes, anyway:

  1. Find ways to make my blog more interactive -- with quizzes, Twitter polls, or the like.
  2. Continue to use the blog as a way to learn more about film history, by exploring genres, actors, and/or directors that deserve more of my attention.
  3. Submit at least one post in the annual CMBA awards process. 
  4. Find and comment on more of my fellow bloggers' work.  There is no lack of great writing and interesting classic film commentary out there, and we are all enriched by reading one another.

Wishing all of my readers a healthy and properous 2017!