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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Two little mid-century British films for the holidays

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I've discovered two little black-and-white British films from the middle of last century that should be on everyone's holiday viewing list. Just like the next classic cinema fan I love The Bishop's Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, A Christmas Carol, Meet Me In St. Louis, etc. etc., but this year I was itching to discover films I hadn't seen, and of course, TCM obliged.

The Holly and The Ivy (1952)

What it is: The film was adapted from a play of the same name by English playwright Wynyard Browne, adapted for the screen by Anatole De Grunwald, who also produced the picture, and directed by George More O'Ferrall. It's set in 1948 England, in a small fictionalized town called Wyndenham, whose local parish is presided over by its hard-working but aging widowed parson played by renowed British actor of stage and screen, Ralph Richardson. On Christmas Eve his grown children and other family members dispersed around the country congregate at the family parsonage, bringing both literal and figurative baggage and brewing conflicts. Both past and present struggles threaten to ruin the family Christmas unless communication barriers are broken down and important understandings and compromises arrived at.

Why I loved it
Dutiful daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) enjoys a sweet
moment with Dad (Ralph Richardson) with boyfriend David
(John Gregson) in the background.
As in all movies I love, the film eloquently captures a past time and place, and helps the viewer understand, if not completely empathize with, the social mores and struggles of the film's characters. This film is relevant today, first, where faith in a higher power (often seen in the older generation) struggles against the non-faith or ambivalence of other parts of society (often younger generations). Second, I found the broader generational dynamics and other issues presented with more candor than is usually seen in films of this time. These include alcoholism, consumerism, dementia, pregnancy out of wedlock, and other secrets, which in this family are kept and then revealed when least expected.

Despite the dark tone of much of the movie, the characters shine with humanity and love for one another, and there are genuinely humorous moments. And when you start the film knowing it's a Christmas movie, you know you will be left with a positive feeling at the end.
Denholm Elliott, John Gregson, and Celia Johnson enjoy a
Christmas homecoming
The performances are wonderful. In addition to Ralph Richardson, you have Margaret Leighton as 'rebel' younger daughter Margaret Gregory, Celia Johnson as responsible older daughter Jenny Gregory, and Denholm Elliott as happy-go-lucky son Michael Gregory. Two elderly and somewhat eccentric aunts are played by Margaret Halston and Maureen Delaney, both of whom assayed these characters in the stage version of the story. The lovely soundtrack prominently featured the upbeat English carol The Holly and the Ivy, with occasional minor chords thrown in. My only issue with the film was the conclusion was a bit too tidy and up until that point the script was leisurely paced, with characters circling around and confronting each other delicately. But, if you are an Anglophile and film fan, you must see this one.
Celia Johnson (l) and Margaret Leighton have a sisterly
heart-to-heart whilst doing the washing up
Where you can find it: Those who subscribe to a cable service with TCM can access the film on the WatchTCM streaming app until December 31. It's also streaming on Kanopy for subscribers of that service. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, on which author and TCM friend Jeremy Arnold does an audio commentary track - I hope to add this to my collection at some point.
Ralph Richardson, Maureen Delany, and Margaret Leighton hope
for a happy Christmas
Cash on Demand  (1962)

What it is: Don't let the rather ridiculous and pedestrian title of this little gem keep you from checking it out. As TCM host Eddie Muller pointed out in his intro to the film, on the surface it's a heist film, but only slightly below the surface it's a modern Christmas-time redemption tale with echoes from Victorian England and Dickens' famous story of a mean old miser and the various ghosts who help him see the error of his ways. (Cash on Demand has no ghosts and no supernatural elements, though.) The film was made at Hammer Film Productions, better known for campy horror pictures during this time, and was expectionally directed by Quentin Lawrence.

From his seat, gentleman robber Gore-Hepburn (André Morell)
menaces Fordyce and Pierson (Peter Cushing and Richard Vernon).
Cash on Demand originated from a British TV drama episode called The Gold Inside, also directed by Lawrence. The film brings the great Peter Cushing (a Hammer horror regular) and André Morell to the roles of the miser and robber respectively. Cushing's character Fordyce, branch manager of a small town bank and boss from hell, berates his employees for tiny infractions and coolly admits he has no interest in them as humans. He is pretty hard on his downtrodden right hand man, chief clerk Pierson, played by Richard Vernon.

The great Peter Cushing ponders how to save his bank
Yet when Fordyce is sequestered in his private office the staff all do the best they can to enjoy their work environment; on December 23rd when this story takes place, they eagerly anticipate their staff holiday party. Then 'Colonel' Gore-Hepburn comes in, posing as a senior insurance inspector on a surprise visit; he deceives everyone with his imperious manner and sets in motion an ingenious plot to rob the bank of £90,000. This involves an extended confrontation between the two men in which Fordyce's composure slowly crumbles. A few plot twists later the film concludes in a tidy manner, this time totally appropriate to the narrative.
The expressions say it all here when the loot appears.
Why I loved it
At about 80 minutes, the film's efficient script unfolds in real time. It doesn't hide its 'Christmas movie' origins as from the very beginning several touches demonstrate that the action revolves around the holiday. And it's a blast to compare it to A Christmas Carol, with Fordyce as a clear Scrooge, and head clerk Pierson a clear Bob Cratchit stand in. The character of Gore-Hepburn is certainly not benevolent like most of the ghosts, but he does do one good turn at a key moment that makes you wonder about his motives. Yet for much of the film you can forget about Christmas as you get sucked into the suspense as step by step the robber executes his plan to make off with a small fortune. And in another element of suspense you wonder if and when the rest of the staff will realize what's happening quietly under their noses.
Great faces here by Norman Bird, Edith Sharpe and Lois Daine,
as the robbery is revealed to the staff
In its short running time all actors are at the top of their games, especially Cushing and Morell. The latter is alternately warm, then a snarling bully. Lawrence captures the action in a combination of wide shots and intense close-ups where the full variety of actors' facial expressions is on display. All in all it's a fantastic piece of entertainment that doesn't require a huge investment of time - invite the family to gather round and make this one part of your holiday party this or any year.

Where you can find it: If you don't have TCM, this one is up on YouTube at the moment--see below. It's also available on DVD both on its own and as part of a Sony collection of Hammer films.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

My Boston-area picks for 'Noirvember'

November is 'noirvember' for classic movie fans. After a spooky October of suspense and horror films, why not follow it up by celebrating Film Noir for an entire month? 

Tomorrow, 11/1 at the New England Conservatory, the Boston-based musical ensemble A Far Cry is presenting a concert of music of classic 'American Noir' by primarily European Jewish immigrant composers. The concert will feature adaptations of works of Korngold, Hermann, Barber and more. What a great way to get in the mood for noir!

The Harvard Film Archive has been running a B-Movie series since mid-September, and I'm looking forward to enjoying a few of these films during the third weekend in November. These are examples of true 'B-movie noir', with their tight storytelling and clever directing -- where truly less is more. 

Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum in When Strangers Marry
(Photo from the HFA Website)
Sun 11/24 at Harvard Film Archive. HFA is screening a double feature of short noirs directed in 1944 by William Castle: When Strangers Marry and The Mark of the Whistler. The former is a vehicle for Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum, and apparently is a murder mystery at its heart, with some melodrama thrown in. The latter features Richard Dix and Janis Carter--I had no idea about the 'Whistler' franchise, spun off from the popular radio series, but Richard Dix and other actors portrayed this fictional character in a few movies in the 1940s, all made at Columbia Pictures. 

Marsha Hunt, Claire Trevor and Dennis O'Keefe in Raw Deal.
(Photo from the HFA Website)

Mon 11/25 at Harvard Film Archive. The HFA B-movie series continues with a double feature of Raw Deal (1948) and Woman on the Run (1950). Raw Deal is an early entry in the filmography of Anthony Mann, stars Dennis O'Keefe and favorite actresses Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. Acclaimed noir cinematographer John Alton is credited in this one. For Woman on the Run, we gat Dennis O'Keefe again, though the film is directed by Norman Foster, a one-time Orson Welles protégé. The leading lady is Ann Sheridan, who is 'on the run'. Assuming I'm not overcommitted in preparing for Thanksgiving, I'll be there!
Use #noirvember on Twitter or Instragram for all kinds of fun stuff.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Alan Ladd blazes down the (Western) trail with 'Branded' (1950)

September 3rd marks the birthday of one of my favorite old Hollywood stars, Alan Ladd. To celebrate, I'm pleased to contribute this post to 'The Man Who Would Be Shane: The Alan Ladd Blogathon," hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out all the great posts this week HERE.

By 1950 when Branded came around, Alan Ladd was already a superstar. After tooling around in bit parts, he'd burst forth in 1942 in This Gun For Hire, in a noir anti-hero role, and his on-screen spark with co-star Veronica Lake prompted Paramount to pair them in multiple noir/adventure tales over the next few years. During this time though, Paramount was casting about for more properties to feature their cash cow, and Westerns seemed like a good match for Ladd's stoic tough-guy-with-a-sensitive-soul persona. His natural athleticism and comfort with horses (he owned his own ranch) could be put to good use. The first Western Ladd made was Whispering Smith (1948) and when it succeeded the next one wasn't far behind.

In Branded, Ladd embraces the Western with renewed gusto, and blazed open the Western trail that was to lead to many film successes in the 1950s. While nobody would put this one above his most iconic film, Shane, which would come in 1953, it's an altogether worthwhile piece of cinematic entertainment and in my personal top-five Ladd films. As in Shane, Ladd's character is a gunfighter with a murky past, also with a single, meaning-packed name: Choya (derived from cholla--a prickly cactus native to Mexico and the southwest U.S.).
Don't mess with me: Alan Ladd in Branded's opening scene
The novel Montana Rides by Evan Evans was adapted for the screen by Sydney Boehm and Cyril Hume, and Rudolph Maté was assigned to direct. Maté, who had been a renowned cinematographer, had recently made his limited foray into directing, but all his previous films were black and white dramas. Though the photography credit goes to Charles B. Lang, Jr., I imagine Maté had a lot to say about shot composition. Regardless, the breathtaking Technicolor views of the Arizona canyon country grounded the film in the rugged West, even if the narrative action pla in Texas near the Mexican border.

The time period is never specifically stated in the film, but seems to be consistent with a mid-late 19th century when the West was still a rough place for the white newcomers to the territory. Unscrupulous fortune seekers roamed around threatening ranchers and gunfighters challenged the establishment of an orderly society in small towns. It's this environment that we're thrown into after the opening credits have rolled -- we meet Choya, who's been holed up in a store trying to evade a posse, and with guns blazing makes a daring escape with his only friends (his guns) and kin (his horse). He's tracked down in the rugged country side by Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and convinced to go in with him on a con--for the promise of a fortune, Choya's to impersonate the long lost son of wealthy rancher Lavery (Charles Bickford). He's even tatooed with a birthmark to match that of the son, who was kidnapped at five years old.
Choya getting a tattoo on his right shoulder by "Tattoo" (John
Berkes). Leffingwell (Robert Keith) makes sure the design is right.
Choya shows up at the ranch, and by acting the tough but hard-working cynic, he earns a job as a ranch hand and when the moment is right, he lets himself be discovered as missing Richard Lavery. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Choya can't help but be attracted to his new "sister," Ruth (Mona Freeman). Additionally, the sleazy Leffingwell has been revealed to be the kidnapper, having apparently concocted this plot over 25 years earlier and sold the real Richard Lavery to a Mexican jefe, Rubriz (Joseph Calleia). Richard has no recollection of his birth family, and is now living as Tonio Rubriz (Peter Hansen). Of course these dilemmas are all solved in a tidy 104 minutes, but only after an extended chase sequence through the streams, canyons and caves along the border, and nail-biting confrontations and 'come-to-Jesus' moments.
Choya meets Rubriz (Joseph Calleia).
Watching this, it seemed to me that Ladd was comfortable being that tough guy spitting nails at his antagonists, and showing off his strong lithe body wrestling or attempting to break a young colt, while also enjoying being stretched to act in more subtle ways. In the scene in which he watches his new 'mother' (an excellent Selena Royle) get emotional after it dawns on her she's looking at her lost son, his discomfort at his deception is evident in his expression and body language. In the Alan Ladd documentary The Real Quiet Man, co-star Mona Freeman commented on Ladd's sensitivity. "He didn't always realize it himself...he was sensitive, and there was a great gentleness about him."
Does Choya want to go through with his mistaken identity deception?
While overall Ladd isn't allowed to stray too far from his handsome leading man presence, I particularly liked those scenes in which he's sporting facial scruff, been dunked in a river, or dragged through the canyon dust. It's a way he's liberated from the confining image that dogged him much of his career, even while it made him box office gold for many years. It's evident he's having a blast making this film. According to Freeman, he was full of gags and fun on set, relaxed and enjoying himself. He did, however, show tremendous deference to the veteran Charles Bickford, even relentlessly trying to beg off a crucial fisticuffs scene until Paramount execs forced the shoot.
Ladd seems to be double-fisted with the guns in this movie.
Another plus for the film is a strong supporting cast, especially Bickford and Freeman, who has just the right blend of sweetness and spunk. Joseph Calleia hams it up a bit, but I can still buy him as a Mexican bandit chief. Robert Keith is perfection as the scheming, murderous Leffingwell who keeps appearing at all the wrong times determined to get what he wants. Peter Hansen made his film debut here, before becoming a reliable TV star. He and Ladd became good friends making the film, and Ladd cast him in a few of his later pictures he produced for Warner Bros.
Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman) and Choya negotiate their relationship
Unlike other Westerns in which the history and politics of time and place are dominant themes, here the story is a melodrama, and could have easily been adapted for a different setting. What's really being explored here is the process of personal discovery -- and the meaning of family. The film illuminates many angles on this theme without bludgeoning the audience with it. Every character is alone with their struggles, in many ways, and the rugged landscape both reflects and intensifies those struggles. We know that at the film's end when most characters attain a bit of respite and the understanding they're looking for, it's probably only temporary as the next journey of survival is around a future corner.

Don't forget to read more great blog posts about Alan Ladd and his films here!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Capitolfest 2019 - A feast of extremely rare early films

Frances Dee and Joel McCrea
For the fourth time I ventured to Rome, NY for the annual 'Capitolfest' film festival this past weekend. I love it for two main reasons. First, it's a virtually stress-free environment to see friends and bond over a mutual love of old films. Second, the films are so rare and/or have not been seen by the public since they were originally released, watching them makes you feel like you're inhabiting an alternative-reality universe!

Peter McCrea on stage at the
Capitol Theatre Aug 2019
Held at the unique movie palace venue, The Capitol Theatre, this year the festival featured both Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, who were married in real life, and were stars from the early 'talkie' era. Both are appealing, 'girl- or guy-next door types' with enough acting talent to carry many a film. McCrea is probably best known today for his work in Westerns later in his career, or his star turn in Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) from the 1940s. Dee is less well known as she mostly retired from acting in the 1950s to raise their family.

Speaking of family, a highlight of the festival was the personal appearance of Peter McCrea, Joel and Frances' son. He addressed the crowd not once, but twice, and took questions. When he first walked out on stage, I almost fell out of my seat, as he resembles his famous dad so much. He talked about how his parent's shared faith in Christian Science drew them closer and helped them through the rough patches in their marriage. When asked who McCrea's favorite directors were, he mentioned both Sturges and George Stevens. He also shared that his mom was content to let her husband be the star later in their lives, and that McCrea 'relaxed' into familiar Western roles later in his career.

Unlike in previous years where the films from featured stars were both of the silent and 'talkie' variety, this year the only films with either of the two featured stars were talkies from the 1930s and 1940s. Of particular interest to me was The Unseen, starring McCrea, Gail Russell, and Herbert Marshall. By Capitolfest standards this was a recent film, having been made in 1945. As a big fan of Herbert Marshall, I loved watching him on the big screen, and he didn't disappoint. The film itself is a somewhat minor suspense entry, but worth checking out. Gail Russell was one of those talented actors who succumbed at an early age to her demons and the pressures of Hollywood, so it's a thrill to see what little work she left us.

The excellent selection of rare silent shorts and features were screened with expert pipe organ accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, and Avery Tunningley. I was particularly fascinated by the first entry in the series of shorts about the life of President Lincoln (The Son of Democracy/The Lincoln Cycle1917), written by and starring Benjamin Chapin. Chapin was a Lincoln devotee and was inspired to create a series about his life when the U.S. entered WWI. In the first installment, "My Mother", we learn how Lincoln as a boy learned from and was devoted to his mother, who sadly died young. Chapin portrayed Thomas Lincoln, and Charlie Jackson was credited as portraying the boy Abraham and Madelyn Clare portrayed Nancy Hanks Lincoln. All were wonderful in this little gem, and I really want to see the remaining extant episodes in the 10-part series.

Another very different silent was the backstage melodrama Sally, Irene, and Mary (1925with young Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford, and Sally O'Neil. At a crisp 58 minutes, the film transported us to a time when flappers lived the good life but often choices presented in life complicate the happiness of all involved. This film isn't available on DVD, and we saw the print loaned from the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.
Bennett, Crawford, and Hines in Sally, Irene, and Mary
(Photo from

My favorite film of the weekend was the second-to-last one on the program, This Reckless Age. Frances Dee was in this one, along with Charlie Ruggles, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Peggy Shannon, Frances Starr, and Richard Bennett (father of actors Constance and Joan). Directed by Frank Tuttle and with a script by Joseph Mankiewicz (adapted from a play by Lewis Beach), it was released by Paramount in 1932. As a faced-paced family 'dramedy', it portrayed an upper class middle-aged couple wrestling with the irresponsible, selfish behavior of their college-age son and daughter as they come home for Christmas. The film is well-acted and the script is snappy, if easily tagged as having theater origins. All characters were three-dimensional and believeable, and the narrative kept us in suspense with refreshing unpredictability. I felt warmth and affection for nearly all the main characters, although not at the same time(!) While the film was apparently considered a 'B' picture when released, as its stars were no longer at the top of the movie universe, I felt it was a true gem and I wish more people would see it.

It was a blast to see many Turner Classic Movie festival friends this year - it seems that more and more TCM devotees are taking the plunge into Capitolfest, and all seem to have greatly enjoyed it. (Thanks to Aurora (@CitizenScreen) for the group selfies below!)
Toni, me, Aurora, and Alan on Friday when we
were still fairly rested.
Boston TCM Backlot member Kay
and I meet in person
for the first time
TCM gang dinner at the festival's conclusion.

Toni, Beth Ann and I talked about our
experiences running TCM local Backlot chapters over an
al fresco lunch. (Thanks to @NitrateDiva for the photo!)
Next year, Capitolfest will feature both Constance and Joan Bennett. Can't wait!

Friday, July 26, 2019

August Classic Film Offerings in Greater Boston

If you want to get your fill of Howard Hawks films, you won't be disappointed if you live in Greater Boston. Same if you want to revisit 1969. The offerings are plentiful--get out and support your local cinema!
Images from IMDb: Clockwise from upper left:
Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo, The Sting, Woman in the Window
Calendar of Films -- check cinema websites (linked below calendar) for screening times*
Aug 1:          Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969) Coolidge Theatre, Brookline
Aug 2:          El Dorado, (Hawks, 1967), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 3:          Woman in the Moon (Lang, 1929), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 4:          Red River, (Hawks, 1948), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 5:          Laura  (Preminger, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 5:          Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks, 1964), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 6:          The Sting (Hill, 1973), The Strand, Clinton
Aug 8:          Easy Rider, (Hopper, 1969) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 9:          Europe '51 (Rosselini, 1952) & La Strada (Fellini, 1954) double feature Brattle Theatre
Aug 9:          The Big Sky (Hawks, 1952), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 10:        Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 11         Hello, Dolly! (Kelly, 1969) Regal Fenway, AMC Assembly Row, AMC Framingham
Aug 11:        Red River (Hawks, 1948), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 12:        Gentleman Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953)  Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 12:        Sergeant York, (Hawks, 1941), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 13         Phantom Lady (Siodmak, 1944) & Ministry of Fear (Lang, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 14:        Hello, Dolly! (Kelly, 1969) Regal Fenway, AMC Assembly Row, AMC Framingham
Aug 15:        Woodstock, (Wadleigh, 1970) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 16-18    Olivia (D. Aubry, 1951), Brattle Theatre
Aug 16:        Rio Lobo, (Hawks, 1970) & The Road to Glory, (Hawks, 1936), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 17:        A Song is Born, (Hawks, 1948) & O. Henry's Full House (Hawks, 1952), Harvard F.A.
Aug 18:        Come and Get It, (Hawks, 1936) & Barbary Coast, (Hawks, 1935), Harvard F.A.
Aug 19:        Woman in the Window (Lang, 1944) & Mask of Dimitrios (Negulesco, 1944) Brattle
Aug 19:        The Crowd Roars (Hawks, 1932), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 21:        California Split (Altman, 1974), Somerville Theatre
Aug 22:        Medium Cool, (Wexler, 1969) Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline
Aug 23:        The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock, 1956), Brattle Theatre
Aug 23:        Red Line 7000, (Hawks, 1965), Harvard Film Archive
Aug 24:        Calamity Jane (Butler,1953) & Young Man With a Horn (Curtiz, 1950) Brattle Theatre
Aug 25:        Pillow Talk (Gordon, 1959) Brattle Theatre
Aug 26:        The Uninvited (Allen, 1944) & Curse of the Cat People (Fritsch, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 26:        Grease (Kleiser, 1978), The Strand, Clinton
Aug 27:        To Have and To Have Not (Hawks, 1944), Brattle Theatre
Aug 28:        MASH (Altman, 1970), Somerville Theatre
Aug 30:        Monkey Business (Hawks, 1952) & His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) Harvard F.A.
Aug 31-Sept 1: All night movie marathon at HFA. Films with themes of 'danger on the high seas!'

September 23rd sneak peek: Underworld (von Sternberg, 1927) at Coolidge with Alloy Orchestra!!

*Disclaimer: With lists like these it is difficult to be 100% comprehensive! Please forgive any omissions.

Cinema Websites:
Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA
Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA
Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA
Somerville Theatre, Somerville MA
Strand Theatre, Clinton MA

Monday, June 17, 2019

A musician's perspective on recording and performing film scores: from City Lights to Star Wars

David Creswell, professional violist
As part of my self-education about classic film, I've decided to do explore film music in some depth. For my first blog post on this subject I was delighted to speak to a seasoned musician about his extensive experience in recording and performing film scores.

David Creswell is a violist in New York City, has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Broadway shows, is principal violist of the Greenwich (CT) Symphony, and has recorded >100 film scores* since moving to NYC in 1997. He also happens to be my brother-in-law. 

JD: As a musician, what is the process to get a gig to record a film score? 

DC:  Composers typically have control over who they hire to record scores, although sometimes studios have a say also. Composers have relationships with various musicians and groups in town (NYC) whose sound and aesthetic they like. Composers have a distinctive voice, and producers and directors use different composers to fit their own voice. Some composers are really dramatic, others are more subtle and cerebral. Composers work with contractors who actually do the hiring – I have several contractors that I work for. Contractors also have different vibes and working styles and the music you get out of that is very different. Specific composers like specific vibes that work for their music and their process of recording the score.  

JD: Who are your film composer idols?
DC:  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to name one, but really all from Korngold’s era, including Copland and Shostakovich. They were great because they were first and foremost serious concert composers. They had learned from earlier musical masters such as Mahler, Strauss, and Nadia Boulanger. Their goal was to be the next Beethoven, Strauss, etc, and their music is complex and rich. Korngold left Europe because of WWII, but he and many of his fellow emigres found a place in Hollywood where they poured their dense creative musical energy into film scoring. It’s a shame that we’ve lost that today to a degree.  I understand directors not wanting the music to distract from their story, but I really love when the music is more of a forward character in the film experience like it was then.

JD: What trends have you observed in film scoring during the 20+ years of your experience? 

DCFirst, the economics of recording film scores have changed a lot in the past 20 years. One of the biggest changes is that many scores are now recorded in Eastern Europe as opposed to NY and LA because orchestras there are less expensive and residuals aren't paid. (In NYC and LA musicians get residuals--shares from how much the movie sells afterwards). And today, there is only one big space left in NY for large orchestras to score: the Manhattan Center ballroom. When working with composers in Europe, producers and composers can fly over with equipment to record with less expensive orchestras. They can even work remotely with an orchestra in Europe, for example, live using web sharing technology!  

Another trend relates to the aesthetics of the music itself--what sound the filmmakers want. Tastes have changed since 1997. Today, scores have a less symphonic identity and are charged to create color and mood that is generated by symphonic instruments but with less motivic influences. It's less melodic, and the overall structures of the music are smaller. These sounds are mixed in with newer genres (e.g. hip hop). Sometimes the playing for these types of less melodic scores requires no vibrato, or is consistently mezzo-piano, and can be sleep-inducing for the musicians because of the often very slow, unexpressive takes. 

A refreshing contrast comes to mind--I performed on the recording of Rachel Portman's score for the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber, directed by Jonathan Demme). The score was a mix of genres, but I recall when we recorded the beginning of the nominating convention; this scene had two minutes of incredibly loud, patriotic music--a great contrast to typical moody delicate music. We were told to blast the hell out of it – that was fun. 

And technology has advanced so much – now you can mix things together using computers, after recording groups of instruments in a more piecemeal manner. Leeway still exists in remixing and changing – that is why scores are often recorded with less vibrato playing--phrase shapes can be manipulated more easily in post-production. Today there are even people out there trying to invent ways of synthesizing an entire score without benefit of musicians!  But thankfully nothing matches the human feeling of live musicians playing.

JD: One of my favorite scores is that of Miklós Rózsa for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). It came to mind when you mentioned rich and complex film music. (proceeds to play a clip from the film's opening credits; the film music suite is linked in the YouTube clip below).
DC: Hmm... Rózsa was really great. Listening, I hear influences of Richard Strauss and Wagner. Rózsa and his contemporaries imitated music that they loved from their childhood. These composers often used motifs representing characters or themes throughout their movies, a technique that was developed and used extensively by Richard Wagner.

JD: It seems that there is an increasing trend to play scores live with film screenings for an audience, in a concert venue.

DC: Yes. About 15-20 years ago we did some concerts that presented parts or scenes of a film, but not the entire film. I remember doing a concert showcasing the great age of Korngold, which included scenes from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). This format worked because composers then tended to write “a piece” for a scene – one segment that could stand on its own. 

David Creswell's viola, in close-up
It's gotten very popular over the last 10 years to screen entire films with live orchestra. This is sort of a cottage industry now and these concerts sell very well. I've done several with the NY Philharmonic and some with other local orchestras. One year with the Philharmonic we played all of the Star Wars movies in a two-week period. That was really fun. Once I played for screenings of Manhattan—that one was kind of boring for the orchestra because there wasn’t a lot of music in it. The trick was to stay awake and not fall over asleep on stage and miss a musical cue! Babe was a complicated score (by Nigel Westlake) because it was based on an organ symphony by Edward Elgar – real music!  Another very fun one was playing for a program of Warner Brothers cartoons!

One of the most significant experiences I had doing this was when the NY Philharmonic played live to West Side StoryIn fact, it was the NY Phil that had recorded the film score in 1961, with composer Leonard Bernstein at the helm; there were friends of mine playing with me for this recent performance who were there in the orchestra when the score was recorded originally!

JD: What do you think makes these screenings with live music so popular?
DC: First, I think the sound is better with live instruments--the richness and complexity of the sound come out more when you’re in the room with the performer – and also, art is being created in the moment. Your experience of the movie is richer due to your emotions being heightened with the experience of live music. And, the audience loves it.  People showed up in costume to the NY Philharmonic's performance of the Star Wars films. When they did Babe, people brought their kids.

JD: What are some challenges for a musician performing a score live to film?

 It's a challenge to get the sound balance right--you're in a concert hall but you're playing with a film that already has certain sound balances, and the sound and actors' voices reflect the rooms that the actors are in. In movie theaters, the acoustic space is usually dead. They compensate by playing it really loud through speakers in the theatre to create the needed ambiance. But you can’t do that in the concert hall.

JD: I especially love attending screenings of silent films with newly-composed scores performed live. Have you had experience playing for any silent films?
The Outlaw and His Wife - Victor Sjöström & Edith Erastoff
DC: I once had a project with composer Stephen Endelman -- he wrote a new score for a Swedish silent film from 1918: The Outlaw and His Wife (directed by and starring legendary Victor SjöströmBerg-Ejvind och hans hustru in the original Swedish). Endelman wrote a chamber ensemble score, and we performed it in small, intimate venues in NYC like The Knitting Factory, with small groups of about 50 people attending screenings. I also got to perform Chaplin's City Lights in concert with the NY Philharmonic in Shanghai as well as New York City--it was very interesting to perform it for a Chinese audience, because different parts of the film, as well as the music, resonate with audiences from different cultures.

JD: What is different when playing for silent films vs. sound films?

DC: Playing live to silent films is freeing because you don't worry about drowning out dialogue or sound effects. Playing for a silent film you're free to use the entire range of your creativity with the sound that you’re making. 

JC: Thank you, I learned so much!

You're very welcome!

*An abbreviated list of film scores David has recorded: Across the Universe 2007, The Alamo 2003, The Brave One 2007, The Departed 2006, Failure to Launch 2006, The Good Shepherd 2006, The Heffalump Movie 2005, Hitch 2005, Intolerable Cruelty 2003, Julie & Julia 2009, Keeping up with the Jonses 2016, The Ladykillers 2004, The Last Mimzy 2007, Maggie’s Plan 2015, Manchurian Candidate 2004, Meet the Robinsons 2007, Noah 2014, Perfect Stranger 2007, The Rookie 2001, Striptease 1996, A Time to Kill 1996, Tower Heist 2011, True Grit 2010, The Truth About Charlie 2002, Two Weeks Notice 2002, You Don’t Know Jack 2010.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Five Favorite films from the Fabulous Fifties!

The 1950s was a fertile decade in Hollywood--despite the blacklist and anti-Communist hysteria--with pictures made to wow audiences to lure them away from their TV sets and back into cinemas. Some movies seemed to underscore the dominant image of a cohesive American family, while others exposed the deep troubles beneath. Societal troubles were often thematic in the best French and Italian films of the decade as well.

In honor of National Classic Movie Day, I'm delighted to share five 1950s films I recommend be on the watchlist of any film fan. I've decided to include one film from each of five genres: Western, the musical, film noir, melodrama, and suspense. Check out all the posts compiled by Rick at the Classic Film & TV Cafe, and create your own personal 1950s watch list!

Western: 3:10 to Yuma (D. Delmer Daves, 1957)
Here's a gripping character-driven Western playing out a tense drama between two flawed men: Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford); the latter is a charming outlaw on the run from a stagecoach hold-up and murder who gets caught and is given to Dan to escort him to the titular train to Yuma (site of the state prison) over a few hours. It's not a particularly realistic or overly violent Western (those would become more the fashion in the 1960s). And it's not meant to be. Instead it's a piece of visual and storytelling art that imbues every stylized scene with tension. The high-contrast black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. is stunning. As the plot revolves around a drought in Arizona, you'll want to have a tall glass of water nearby as you watch, as the dry harsh beauty of the landscape is almost overwhelming.

I love that the characters (at least the main male ones) are three dimensional and underplayed. Glenn Ford apparently was cast originally as Dan Evans, but requested to take on the role of the villain here, and what a great choice. The economy of the script forces all the actors to do much with face and body to convey the struggles of will they face during the running time. The ending is so much more cathartic and satisfying as a result.
I love the composition of this shot.

This film also has that special something, which for me is the score. The song '3:10 to Yuma' is sung by Frankie Laine over the title credits, and the haunting theme repeats during the film in various arrangements--my favorite is the guitar, flute and violin trio.

If you've seen the 2007 remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, expect a similar story, but resist the comparisons. The later film is a much more realistic Western and the vibe is different. Watch the original for a compelling cinema experience on its own.

Noir: Angel Face (D. Otto Preminger, 1953)
Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup in Angel Face
It's a noir and it stars Robert Mitchum. Sold yet? He's the chump taken in by Jean Simmons' rich spoiled girl Diane Tremayne, who ratches up the concept of the 'femme fatale' several orders of magnitude. Her face is angelic but her soul is anything but. ('Kathy' in Out of the Past could take lessons in evil from Diane.) A dominant theme here is that all is not well in the great American family of the 1950s.

Diane turns on the charm to lure Frank Jessup (Mitchum), an ambulance driver, to ditch his earnest girlfriend (Mona Freeman) for her, and the problems (and body count) begin to mount.  It's a terrific thriller, as all along we think that Mitchum is somehow going to escape her clutches, but he keeps getting drawn back in. Mitchum is mesmerizing as usual, and Jean Simmons, the talented English actress who was still early in her career with roles such as Ophelia under her belt, commits fully to her psychopathic character. Herbert Marshall, a favorite of mine, is delightful as her deluded, indulgent father. By the end of this part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, you may never want to get into a convertible again.
Jean Simmons surveying the scene of the future crime(s).

Cary Grant being driven along the Riviera by
Grace Kelly
Suspense: To Catch a Thief (D. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955).
I'll admit that I watched this one for the first time ever last month. It's not the most acclaimed Hitchcock, and having been left cold by some of Grace Kelly's other performances, I had put off watching it. But it was free on Amazon Prime, and I decided to give it a whirl. And I loved it. It's not your typical Hitchcock film in that it's not scary in the slightest, and any minor suspenseful scenes hardly quicken the pulse. But it's a romp and a romantic fantasy that sweeps you away.
In case the color wasn't bright enough, a key
scene takes place in a flower market.
Former jewel thief/cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) has gone straight and is enjoying life in Southern France; due to a rash of thefts, he's pressured into cooperating with the local authorities to set a trap for the yet unknown serial burglar. Along the way he must work with visiting wealthy American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful but aloof daughter Frances (Kelly). The action hops along Hitchcock style with literal and figurative twists and turns until the puzzles are solved.

Arguably the best thing about the film was its location setting - the gorgeous coast of Southern France, in complete bloom with flowers everywhere. I don't think there is another film that can come close to being as colorful. And Grace Kelly seems to be at home in the locale--perhaps that is why I enjoy her so much here. (As everyone knows, she was soon to take up residence as the new Princess of Monaco the year after this film was released.). Just look at some more fabulous images:

Musical: Singin' in the Rain (D. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1953)

I was hoping to find a lesser-known musical to highlight here. But because I'm not a huge fan of musicals, even though I've enjoyed many during this decade, none did I enjoy nearly as much as this one. There's a reason that it tops the American Film Institute's best musical film of all time. So if you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? With Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagan, it's colorful, rollicking, hysterically funny...and those songs! The story revolves around a silent film star (Kelly) who must find a way to succeed during the conversion to sound films. Hollywood is thoroughly enjoying spoofing itself here while celebrating the wonder of a good movie.

Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 Oscar winner The Artist owes much in plot and characterization to this film. Yet I hope that no one ever attempts to remake this fabulous Hollywood love letter to the best of itself. Check out one of my favorite musical numbers "Good Mornin" with all three stars:

Melodrama: The Earrings of Madame De... (D. Max Ophuls,1953)
It's a French film by acclaimed director Max Ophuls, and like many French films of the era, it's filled with ambiguity in character and motivation, but it's so tightly drawn and elegant. I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive last year and I've not been able to get it out of my mind since. The lead character, whose full name is never revealed, is portrayed by stunning Danielle Darrieux. She's partially content with her Parisian life at the end of the 19th century with wealthy husband Charles Boyer, but is rather bored and is seeking other company. When Boyer gifts her an exquisite pair of diamond earrings, they become a pawn multiple times in a series of deceits aimed to help conceal her infidelities.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the film is “one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed. It glitters and dazzles, and beneath the artifice it creates a heart, and breaks it.” Perhaps it's the 'manneredness' of the film that makes it such a pleasure for me. The camera is almost like a character the way it glides around the others in a film - as a viewer it's like being in a waltz with everyone on screen, even if the music grows continually darker and is played in a minor key.

I also particularly enjoyed Vittorio de Sica, the famed director who was also an actor, and just a year removed from his successful and acclaimed Bicycle Thieves, he is so charismatic here as one of Madame's lovers. 
Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux
So break out a bottle of Burgundy, dip into some fois gras, and treat yourself to the best of 1950's French filmmaking. And while you're indulging visit the Classic Film & TV Cafe for more great Fifties films.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lana Turner--femme fatale (?) in JOHNNY EAGER (1942)

In this noir, beautiful blond Lana Turner completely bewitches her handsome co-star and sets in motion a series of decisions that ultimately lead to his demise. No, it's not The Postman Always Rings Twice. In that film, she takes her place among the most recognized femmes fatale, including Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Here, we're discussing what was perhaps for Turner a warm-up for that one--Johnny Eager (1942), in which it's Robert Taylor who falls prey to her charms. 

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon about femmes and hommes fatale in film noir. Click the image to see all the terrific posts over the past few days.

"The town's full of women and I have to pick the most dangerous one in town." 
-- Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager.

So I'll be clear up front: in Johnny Eager, Lana Turner's character is not a true femme fatale. Yet, with the seductive way she goes about her business for the first half of the film we really not sure of her motives; that and the deadly plot spiral in the final act, make her part a juicy one to dissect. (Warning: spoilers below.)

Lana Turner and director Mervyn LeRoy
on the set of Johnny Eager
According to Robert Osborne, the beloved late host of Turner Classic Movies, this film, from a short story and screenplay by James Edward Grant, was a departure for MGM, the 'cadillac studio' that rarely made movies about the criminal element. They had a star in Robert Taylor, but decided that in order for his films to attract male fans, they needed to rough up his image and cast him as a gangster! (Just a year earlier 20th Century Fox successfully employed that strategy with Tyrone Power in the similarly named Johnny Apollo.) Twenty-year-old rising star Turner was cast opposite Taylor and was seen by MGM as their female sex symbol since Jean Harlow. While this minor noir is not as well known today, Johnny Eager made over $1 million in profit when it was released.

Robert Taylor in a publicity
photo from the 1930s
Turner was only four years removed from her first significant role, in They Won't Forget (1937), where her discovery by director Mervyn LeRoy was rewarded when he showcased her enticing blend of sexiness and innocence, and she was dubbed 'the sweater girl'. The film was aptly named, as audiences did not forget Turner, who was in a steep rise to stardom. Versatile LeRoy had a hit with the gangster classic Little Caesar (1931), and success with Turner in the earlier film--her comfort level with him made him a good fit for Johnny Eager. To promote the film MGM created an evocative shorthand for their star pairing of Taylor and Turner -- TNT--and indeed sparks flew between them both on and off the set. (For a detailed description of their pairing in this film, see my fellow CMBA blogger Aurora's post here.)

While Turner heats up the screen in her scenes, the film spends more time with the title character. Taylor is serviceable in his role as the titular big city boss and racketeer, as ruthless and hard-hearted as he is handsome. He's recently out of jail on parole and while appearing to go straight, finds ways to keep his crime organization active and has even greater ambitions to profit from a dog racing track operation. Getting in his way is the district attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), who is one of a few not taken in by Taylor's cover as a suave mustachioed cab driver(!) Also serving as minor nuisances are his girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane) and his alcoholic right-hand man, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin in his first and only Oscar-winning role).

Things get significantly more complicated when Lisbeth Bard (Turner) turns up. We first see her early in the film when she's at court at the same time that Taylor is meeting his parole officer Verne (Henry O'Neill), and she takes note of the handsome stranger. Though the aforementioned officer refers to her and her friend (Diana Lewis) as 'sociology students', Turner projects a more mature and glamorous persona. And her look after seeing Taylor signals to us she has more than studies on her mind. She questions Verne about Johnny, and her comment "he looks to have more ambition than just driving a cab" makes us wonder if the criminal in him is enticing to her. In fact, the more she hears about his past, the more interested she looks. In this first scene, she seems like a good candidate for femme fatale, the concept that is neatly summed up by Foster Hirsch in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen: these women are "malevolent temptresses, their power confined almost entirely to a sexual realm, their strength achieved only at the expense of men."
Lisbeth Bard contemplating Johnny's criminal record
Lisbeth's pursuit of Johnny begins in earnest when she shows up to his 'home' along with his parole officer with 'field work' as her rationale. Their mutual attraction is evident...and the camera is also smitten.

Lisbeth and Johnny check each other out
Once Lisbeth Bard's young beau turns up at a party, we think she may be an innocent student after all, infatuated with Johnny's good looks and potentially dangerous persona. But then she mysteriously appears in the office of a restaurant manager whom Johnny starts to shake down before noticing her presence. She's unfazed, and begins to come on strong, dropping any pretense of naivete: "You don't want me talking about this (incident) to Mr. Verne--he might think you've been lying to him." She then moves in on him, strokes his suit jacket lapels, and with a hardened jaw says "Don't lie to me Mr. Eager--I have no intention of reporting you." When she gets in his car, she suggestively says to him, "No, I don't want you to take me home", and their first clinch follows. When eventually they do arrive at her home, Johnny is unpleasantly surprised to meet her stepfather - the D.A. John Benson Farrell (Arnold).

Lisbeth, the 'killer'
A short time later, Eager is attempting to make room in his life for Lisbeth--he promptly dismisses his girlfriend while openly defying the two-faced Farrell's threats and bribes to stay away from his daughter. But, lest we think that Lisbeth, in femme fatale fashion, will break Johnny's heart to her own ends, almost the exact opposite happens. Johnny sees an opportunity to use Lisbeth for profit. He sets up a staged scene (which isn't revealed as being staged until after it's complete) where he goads Lisbeth into shooting his underling Julio (Paul Stewart) after he appears to threaten Johnny's life. We later learn his goal is to blackmail Farrell into agreeing to permit his dog racing track. Horrified by believing she killed Julio, Lisbeth promptly retreats into a catatonic, pitiful state for several days. We understand now that she is a victim like most other humans Johnny's life touches.

For the time being, Johnny goes back to his usual mob boss shenanigans, getting what he wants from Farrell and outsmarting most everyone else he meets. After a few days he's convinced to visit the distraught Lisbeth, only after prompting by her ex-beau, and shows some compassion at her condition. When she proves herself willing to sacrifice her freedom for him, he professes his love for her and admits he framed her. His subsequent unselfish and risky decisions then lead to his demise, and the picture ends with him dying in the street in the arms of his friend Hartnett.
Johnny's final confrontation looks as noir as they come

Lisbeth breaks down as Johnny confesses his love
So, if Lisbeth is not a femme fatale, what is she, really? Lana Turner is too glamorous to convince us she is a naive student. (Ironically, when this film was released, the 'femme fatale' wasn't yet a thing, at least in the noir genre, since it was so new. Audiences would not have come into the film with the same expectations as modern audiences looking back.) We wonder what her history with other men has been, despite the desire of her father. It may be her father is over-protective, influencing her to follow danger, take great risks even and get herself in over her head. Turner is perfect at letting slip that vulnerability that just might be part of her irresistibility to Johnny. Her breakdown near the end is truly heartbreaking.

When Lisbeth proves to be as self-sacrificing as Johnny is selfish, promising to turn herself into the police only after Johnny's no longer in danger as an accessory, she breaks the wall of ice around Johnny's heart. When she redeems him, his doing the right thing causes his death - so, literally, she is as dangerous to him had she been a nefarious character. If Lisbeth's not a true femme fatale, for Johnny, the end result is the same.

Sources consulted:
Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner, E.P. Dutton, Inc, 1982.
Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, by Mervyn LeRoy and Dick Kleiner, Hawthorn Books, Inc, 1974
Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, by Cheryl Crane (Turner's daughter) with Cindy De La Hoz, Running Press, 2008.
The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, by Foster Hirsch, A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc., 1981.