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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

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