Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zaza (1923)

Zaza (1923)

In 1923, Gloria Swanson was a bonafide star. She had over 40 films under her belt and a few more years of silent film fame ahead of her before the industry transitioned to talking pictures. Then there is her fabulous comeback with Sunset Blvd. (1950) which is a completely different story.

Hollywood director Allan Dwan, inventor of the camera dolly, had his eye on Zaza, a French play by playwright duo Pierre Berton and Charles Simon. The play was a major hit, capturing the end of the Gay Nineties of Paris for future generations. It was adapted into film a couple of times before Dwan got his hands on it. Dwan convinced Adolph Zukor of Paramount to buy the rights for a film adaptation and he had one star in mind for the lead role: Gloria Swanson.

Dwan and Swanson had met briefly at a Hollywood party before but had never worked together. The director's reputation preceded him and Swanson knew well that he had worked with countless other big name film stars. It was inevitable that they would work together. However Swanson was worried that Zaza would prove to be just another period costume picture. She'd been in several leading up to 1923. According to her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Dwan told her "I want your costumes to be authentic and exciting, sassy and vulgar, and Norman Norell will give me exactly what I want." In this film adaptation, Dwan and his team switched things up to portray the story in a more modern setting with costuming to match.

Swanson was so excited for the role that she delayed having minor surgery in New York City to be in the film. Dwan convinced Paramount producers Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor to speed up the filming schedule for Swanson's sake. They found a mansion on Long Island that doubled as a French chateau. Swanson stayed in actor Richard Bennett's NYC apartment and commuted to Astoria and the mansion for filming each day. This was back when Paramount had a studio in Astoria, Queens and did a lot of filming on Long Island.

To star alongside Gloria Swanson, Paramount enlisted H.B. Warner, an actor whom contemporary audiences will recognize as Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Back in the early '20s he was a well-known stage actor and went on to play Jesus Christ in Cecil B. Demille's King of Kings (1927). Also in the cast is Mary Thurman who plays Florianne, Zaza's on stage rival. Tashman had much promise as a film star but tragically died in 1925 at the age of 30 when she caught pneumonia while making Down Upon the Suwanee River (1925). (Side note: that film also stars Charles Emmett Mack who also tragically passed away while making another film two years later.) Fans of Helen Mack will delight in seeing her at the age of 10 playing the role of Lucille Dufresne.

Zaza (1923) is a story about famed soubrette Zaza (Gloria Swanson) who dreams of performing in Paris and falling in love. She has her eye on patron of the arts Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) but her drunk Aunt Rosa (Lucille La Verne) is trying to persuade her niece to snag Duke de Brissac (Ferdinand Gottschalk) instead (after all he has a nice wine cellar!). Zaza is a temperamental star, quick to bouts of anger and loves to drive her rival soubrette Florianne (Mary Thurman) mad with jealousy. Both Zaza and Florianne want Bernard but what neither of them knows is that he's married and unavailable. However, Bernard can't help himself and gives into Zaza's charm. She wins him over at her French chateau where she is recovering after a fall. They spend time together before Bernard is called away for a position in Washington D.C. He's been estranged from his wife who comes back into the picture only when she sees his prospects increased. Eventually Zaza discovers that not only is her love Bernard married but he also has a charming little daughter Lucille (Helen Mack). She can't bring herself to break up the family and she runs away from Bernard. The story becomes less about life about the stage and more about the romantic drama caused by Zaza and Bernard's passionate love for each other. The story doesn't end there and you'll have to watch the film to find out what becomes of the two.

Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923)
Gloria Swanson as Zaza

Even though Dwan promised Swanson that this wouldn't be another costume picture, Zaza (1923) is kind of another costume picture. My fellow vintage fashion enthusiasts will delight in the extravagant and sometimes ridiculous fashions donned by Gloria Swanson in the film. Imagine the merchandising that could have resulted from this film? Swanson wears Z-shaped earrings and a bracelet with Z mark on it that could have easily been sold to young women who wanted to be as fabulous as Swanson. Swanson wears a fantastic flower dress, dons an outlandish feathered hat, 1920s shoes that are to die for and in one scene she has what looks like about 50 earring type jewels dangling precariously from threads of teased hair. It must be seen to be believed.

Gloria Swanson as Zaza. Photo source: Pinterest

The film starts out as a comedy but quickly turns into a romantic drama. It was quite enjoyable and worth watching especially if you have an interest in Gloria Swanson. It does have his bad moments including one racist remark uttered by Zaza and an unfortunate scene with a hunchback. This is one of those films in which the history of the movie is even more interesting than the plot.

Swanson worked well with Dwan and they went on to make 7 more films together. The play Zaza was adapted several times including a 1938 version that starred Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Zaza revitalized Gloria Swanson's career, which had been in a funk after all those costume pictures, and it catapulted her fame. Any anonymity she enjoyed prior to Zaza was long gone.

Zaza (1923) Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber

Zaza (1923) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The music for the film is by my favorite silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis whom I've written about on this blog numerous times. He adapted the music from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Thank you to Kino for sending me a copy of this film for review.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My History with DVD Netflix and a Giveaway

One service that has been integral to my life as a classic film enthusiast is DVD Netflix. Over the years I’ve come to rely on the DVD rental service to enrich my life with classic movies but also contemporary, indie and foreign ones too. (And TV shows, lots of TV shows!) Before I share my own personal history of my time with DVD Netflix, let’s take a brief look at the history of the company.

Netflix, founded in 1997, was started as a DVD subscription service. Subscribers would visit the Netflix website and request discs rather than visit brick-and-mortar video stores like Blockbuster. Netflix sent out their very first DVD, a copy of Beetlejuice (1988), in March of 1998. The service grew in popularity and eventually overtook Blockbuster and rendered video stores obsolete. The subscription service worked on the model of renting a certain number of discs at a time or number of discs per month. Subscribers explored the library, marked the films and TV shows they wanted to watched and built a queue of future disc deliveries. A bright red envelope, which would become the signature of Netflix, arrived in the mail with the disc at the top of your queue. Once you were done, you’d put the disc back in the original mailer which would repackage into a convenient prepaid envelope ready for mailing. Convenience was key to the success of DVD rental service. Then in 2007 Netflix added streaming to the mix. They became the pioneers in streaming entertainment and a part of the cultural lexicon. In 2011, Netflix’s streaming service was so popular and such a big part of their business they attempted to split off the DVD portion. They came up with the name Qwickster which was met with online backlash. Netflix wisely scrapped this idea. In 2015, they successfully split the DVD service to, also known as DVD Netflix. The service also includes Blu-Rays if you upgrade your subscription. Netflix's streaming service and their original content is now separate from the DVD Netflix rental service. However, the company kept both services linked for user convenience.

I joined Netflix in August of 2002. My friend Amit, who used the service to get his Anime fix, signed up a couple of years earlier and kept signing its praises. Persuaded by his enthusiasm I signed up. The first movie I ever rented was Wonder Boys (2000) and a few months later I rented my first classic movie DVD Some Like it Hot (1959). At the time I signed up I still wasn’t quite a classic movie fan. I developed a love for movies as a teenager in the late 1990s and loved new movies about bygone eras. In my early twenties I was exploring a variety of contemporary and indie movies and it wasn’t until I took a film course in college that I got hooked on classic films. Renting classic movies from Netflix helped fuel that early passion. While I watched a lot of TCM, I relied on DVDs from Netflix to single out particular films. If I liked a particular actor, actress or director, I’d use Netflix in order to rent every film of theirs that was available. Besides a couple of times when I was in college and had to cancel Netflix briefly, I’ve had the DVD part of the service almost continuously since 2000. These days I use it to help with my blog research, to explore the canon of a particular director, to plug in holes in my classic film knowledge and also to watch newer movies I missed at theaters.

Earlier this year I was invited by DVD Netflix to be one of their Directors. This means I’m an online ambassador for the service and I help them come up with fun posts and social media ideas to promote the brand. For example, here is my post on the blog about Classic Sports Movies.

Photo source: DVD Netflix
To celebrate my 10th anniversary and also my almost 15 years with DVD Netflix, I’m hosting a very special giveaway. If it’s been a while since you’ve rented DVDs from DVD Netflix or you’ve never tried the service before, now’s your chance. I’m giving away 3 $100 DVD Netflix gift cards. If you get a one-at-a-time DVD Netflix subscription, this give you a year of the service! The contest runs from now until Friday morning. You must complete all of the prompts. All entries will be double checked. Good luck!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Out of the Past: A 10th Anniversary

At Dick Cavett's TCMFF book signing

It was on this day 10 years ago that I started my classic film blog Out of the Past. It all began with a  welcome post followed by a short piece on The Dick Cavett Show with special guest Alfred Hitchcock.  Little did I know the journey this blog would take me on. I started with a post about Dick Cavett and I bookended the decade with my red carpet interview with the man himself. If you told me that back in 2007 all of the wild and wonderful experiences that were coming my way and all the amazing people I would meet I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s been a wild ride and I hope there are many more adventures to come.

Outside the Harvard Film Archive circa 2009

Why did I start the blog? In 2007 I was in graduate school, working full-time and living on my own in an apartment just outside of Boston. When I wasn’t doing homework, working, or hanging out with friends, I was watching classic movies. A lot of classic movies. I couldn’t get enough. I’d mostly watch them by myself or with my mom. This was satisfactory for a while but eventually I found that I couldn’t just watch classic movies. I needed to talk about them. I found myself working classic film into my every day life. It was getting out of control. One day at a company meeting I brought up Cary Grant in conversation because one of my coworkers shared the same first name. My other coworker Frank brought up that same conversation later on and I discovered that we had a mutual interest in classic film. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed someone, anybody to talk to about classic movies until I started bugging Frank incessantly with film chatter. I had a lot to say and I needed an outlet. Then on June 15th, 2007 I started Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog. I found the perfect place for my voice and the rest was history.

Me and Carlos in front of the Hollywood sign

When I was coming up with the name for my blog I was looking for two things: something that described the theme of my blog that also worked as a recognizable classic film reference. Out of the Past was perfect. The 1947 noir was my gateway into classic movies. I watched it for the first time as an undergrad when I took a film course. I was mesmerized by this beautiful yet confusing noir. I wanted to know more about the actors and wanted to see more films like it. That led to many more classic movies and lots of time spent watching TCM. The phrase Out of the Past also described the theme of my blog. Anyone who would visit would know immediately that anything discussed would be out of the past. I hoped that name would lure classic film lovers as well as vintage gals and gents and history enthusiasts. The name has confused some folks who visited the blog thinking it would solely be about Film Noir. I still stand by the name and it’s grown to be such a part of this blog that I can’t imagine ever changing it.

First time on the TCMFF Red Carpet, circa 2016

At first my blog started as a way to liven up discussion of classic movies. I wanted about each post being as fun as possible. A few years into the process I became more serious about my writing and started tackling lengthier and more in-depth posts, did a ton more research and started reading and reviewing many classic film books. The blog took on a much different tone. Frankly, I grew up and grew out of that originally goofy style. In fact I look back and cringe at some of those really silly posts. A few have haunted me for years. I hope if anything they're still amusing to some readers even if I can’t bring myself to look at them. When people tell me my blog was one of the first they’ve ever read, I really hope they weren’t reading those early posts.

Making new friends at TCMFF. Max and I at the Charlton Heston Stamp Ceremony

It wasn’t until I started attending the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013 that my blog started to have a big impact on my life. When I first visited Hollywood I couldn’t believe I would not only be in the epicenter of film history but I’d also be seeing classic film stars in person, I’d finally get to see Robert Osborne and most importantly I’d get to meet face-to-face with all those wonderful film blogger friends I’ve talked to over the years. TCMFF tested my introverted nature but I kept traveling to California each year. In 2014 and 2015 I got very ill while attending, mostly my body’s reaction to the onslaught of social interaction that it wasn’t able to handle. By 2016 I got the hang of it and one of the things that helped me the most was conducting interviews on the red carpet. Not only is it the coolest thing I’ve ever done but it also helped me grow as a person. If I can interview Dick Cavett on the red carpet, I can talk to literally anybody and be okay. Every single TCMFF was a long-weekend packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. One after the other after the other. I live off of 4 days worth of memories for an entire year. I got to go to 5 TCM Classic Film Festivals thanks to my blogging.

Epic group selfie with a bunch of my classic film friends at the 2016 TCMFF

Over the years of writing this blog I’ve developed wonderful partnerships with brands, studios, repertory theatres, filmmakers, classic film writers, authors, musicians, social media influencers and many more. These have turned into wonderful collaborations as well as friendships. I had no clue when I started this blog 10 years ago how many amazing people would come into my life as a result of this blog. And for that I’m forever grateful.

Meeting my friend Jonas for the first time. Cinefest circa 2015

I took some time to look at my old posts to curate a collection of some highlights from my 10 years.

If you have any memories you'd like to share, either of meeting me at a festival or interacting with me online, feel free to share in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook     Google+