Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Undercurrent (1946)

Undercurrent (1946)

In 1946 Robert Mitchum was under contract to RKO. They had loaned him out to MGM for two pictures Undercurrent (1946) and Desire Me (1947) which were filmed back-to-back. He had relatively small roles in both as the third person in a romantic melodrama. Both films turned out to be box office failures. Not that this hurt Mitchum's career trajectory at all. In fact, placing Mitchum in movies with the type of high-caliber stars that were missing from RKO's line-up, in this case MGM heavyweights Greer Garson in Desire Me and Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent, was incredible exposure for Mitchum. And the following year he'd make Out of the Past (1947) which would help secure him a spot as a popular leading man in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum's shadow in a publicity shot for MGM

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Undercurrent (1946) is part film noir, part neurotic melodrama. Katharine Hepburn stars as Ann, a scientist and 30-something daughter of well-respected Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) whom she lovingly refers to as Dink. She's a tomboy, wears pants, loves chemistry, and doesn't fuss too much over her appearance. But in the world she lives in she's really just a dowdy woman on the verge of spinsterhood. When charming young inventor Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) comes to visit Professor Hamilton, Ann is soon swept away by his romantic gestures. Garroway is attracted to Ann much in the same way he would be to a new idea for an invention. He sees possibility to transform her into a glamorous socialite. All seems well in their marriage until it becomes apparent that Garroway harbors dark secrets. He's severed his relationship with his brother Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum) and in conversation with Ann he paints the picture of unforgivable sibling betrayal. Ann believes him until she discovers Alan's first lie and things begins to unfold. Ann suffers the internal battle between her love for Alan and her desire for the truth. Is Alan really the man she fell in love with? And where is Michael?

Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)

 "Is there good swimming?" - Ann
"No, riptide." - Michael
"Looks very calm." - Ann
"You can't always see that undercurrent." - Michael
"Like life." - Ann

Clearly I watched this movie for one reason: Robert Mitchum. While his character Michael is central to the story, Mitchum himself doesn't appear until 62 minute mark of a 2 hour movie and his total screen time is probably less than 10 minutes. Needless to say this was a disappointment for me but I was grateful for to check off another Mitchum movie off my to-be-watched list.

While it's categorized as a film noir, I like the term "neurotic melodrama" a lot better. It really captures the overall theme of the movie. The build up of tension is slow and methodical. None of the roles suited the main players. Ann was a weak role for Katharine Hepburn whom we all know shines when she has strong characters to play. Mitchum as the mysterious brother was also a weak character for him. Robert Taylor's performance was decent. I grew more fearful of his character as the story progressed so I thought that was an effective part of the movie. I think this film is worth watching for the main players, the melodrama and the build up of tension. This was Jayne Meadows film debut. She plays Sylvia Benton, a no-nonsense socialite who was unwillingly caught in a love triangle with the two brothers. She has a small but fantastic part as the tough woman who opens Ann's eyes to what's happening around her. Clinton Sundberg plays Taylor's right-hand man. Marjorie Main has a small role in the beginning of the film as the Hamilton's maid and mother figure to Ann.

This movie was a departure for Minnelli so he wasn't the only one on set who out of his element. From what I've read, Hepburn and Mitchum didn't get along which could be why there is very little to no tenderness between them in what should be tender scenes in the film. In an interview with Dick Lochte, Mitchum remembered overhearing Hepburn refer to him as a "cheap flash actor." This was the only time they worked together which was probably for the best.

The film didn't perform well in theaters. In 1947 playwright Fay Elhert sued MGM for using the title of his play, one he submitted to MGM for consideration, for this movie. Laraine Day had been promised the title role of Ann in exchange for her appearing in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945). MGM didn't hold up their end of the bargain and Day severed her contract with them.

I'm conflicted about this movie. I want to like it but something pulls me back. I can't quite put my finger on it. It could be shorter with even more tension. Maybe other actors better suited to the roles would have improved the film for me. But otherwise it's just an ordinary movie that I just happened to enjoy but not too much.

If you've seen this film I would love to know what you think!

I watched this film on iTunes. I missed an opportunity to see it at the Brattle Theatre as part of their Robert Mitchum centennial repertory series but hope to catch another screening soon.

Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Mitchum in His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts

Monday, July 24, 2017

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016)

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) movie poster
"Obits have next to nothing to do with the death and absolutely everything to do with the life." - Margalit Fox
Classic film enthusiasts are well-acquainted with obituaries. The deaths of our beloved stars are a common occurrence. When someone dies we take the time to reflect on their life. Reading obits on and offline is one of the ways we celebrate the life and mourn the loss. When I first started this blog I always knew that I didn't want to write obits. At first I would post little tributes instead with just a few words and a picture or two. Even then it became too much and I abandoned the practice. I have the utmost respect for those who regularly write obits even more so now that I watched the new documentary Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016).

Directed by Vanessa Gould, Obit. takes a deep dive into the work by the obit team at The New York Times. Talking heads include current and former obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, their boss William McDonald as well archivist Jeff Roth and various others who contribute to the The New York Times obits.

Newspaper obit writers are a dying breed. Once considered to be the most boring section of a newspaper, today's writers have breathed new life into this form of journalism. The New York Times obit team focuses on writing pieces that educate, illuminate and entertain. They capture the essence of a life while also telling the reader an enthralling story. While they try to do justice to a life there is also the need for impartiality. These writers are not afraid to explore the negatives along with the positives. There is a keen eye on research. Obit writers race against the clock to pull together as much information as they can in a short amount of time. This means calling family members of the deceased, speed reading clips that are pulled from The New York Times' "Morgue" and using other resources to build the skeleton of the obit. Then there are the creative minds of these writers whose talent for the written word weave the tales of lives well-lived or not at all.

Scene from Obit. Photo source: Kino Lorber

One minute into Obit. and I was hooked. I was utterly fascinated by the process of researching and writing an obit. Viewers follow the writers on a typical day at the office but we also get to hear about some of their previous work too. The position of an obit writer used to be the lowest rung on the totem pole of a newspaper; a job relegated to someone on their way out. I get the sense that while The New York Times obit team isn't one of the top departments it is still respected.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure to be as prepared as you can, knowing that you'll never be prepared." - William McDonald

We get a peak at how the obit team pitches for a page one piece (either a top story or a "refer", a call out to the obit section on the bottom of the front page). Viewers get to see the "Morgue" where decades worth of news clippings arranged by subject and subject matter. There are insights on how photographs are selected, how the length of obits are decided on and how they approach advances, obits written ahead of a person's death. There is also a spotlight on individual obits for figures like adventurer John Fairfax, author David Foster Wallace, Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley and the Comets, stunt pilot Elinor Smith, actress Farrah Fawcett and singer Michael Jackson. These were fascinating and we learn quite a bit about the process.

Archivist Jeff Roth in the "Morgue" - Photo source: Kino Lorber

I was hoping this documentary had more classic film related figures but alas it did not. The only person mentioned was Elizabeth Taylor who's obit was a big deal for the team. There are some clips of movie stars like Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe but none are focused on. I think it's still worth the time of classic film fans to watch this documentary especially if you're like me and read obituaries on a regular basis.

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) is an illuminating and informative documentary on the writers who give the recently deceased one final send-off. This is a must-see!

Obit. (2016) will be available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1st. You can pre-order the movie by using the buy links below.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray to review!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Betrayed (1944)

Betrayed (1944) poster
In 1949, Robert Mitchum was a household name. By that time he had made a splash in the genre that was later dubbed film noir with movies such as The Locket (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Crossfire (1947) and the noir we all know and love Out of the Past (1947). That last film made him famous and his arrest in 1948 for the possession of marijuana made him notorious. The King brothers, Frank and Maurice King, must have been following the trajectory of Mitchum's career very closely. Five years earlier, Mitchum made two films for the King brothers and poverty row studio Monogram Pictures. The first one was Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) (you can read my review here), a WWII housing shortage comedy starring Simone Simon. Mitchum had a very minor role in that film. He got a juicier part in When Strangers Marry (1944) which also produced by the King brothers and distributed by Monogram. In that film Mitchum didn't have the lead role but he was third billed with his name truncated to Bob Mitchum so it would fit the poster. Fast forward five years and Mitchum was now making movies for Howard Hughes at RKO. And he was doing well. If you know anything about the King brothers you'd know that when they saw a money-making opportunity they pounced. With Mitchum's fame and notoriety firmly established in Hollywood, Maurice and Frank King re-released their two Mitchum movies. They bumped up his name to top billing, altered the posters to more prominently display the star and changed Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore to And So They Were Married and When Strangers Marry to the more ominous Betrayed.

When Strangers Marry (1944) poster. Compare with the Betrayed poster and how Mitchum's name is positioned.

Betrayed (1944), aka When Strangers Marry, is a film noir directed by William Castle and based on a story by George Moskov. The movie starts with the murder of wealthy drunk Charlie (Milton Kibee). He was last seen with traveling salesman Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger) who helped Charlie to his home. The police discover Charlie had been strangled with a pair of silk stockings. Baxter recently wed Mildred (Kim Hunter). The two have barely known each other, meeting only three times before they married and haven't seen each other since the wedding. Mildred can't find her husband and enlists the help of her former beau Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) and the police. Everyone begins to suspect Paul Baxter has been up to something. He doesn't want to be seen in public and has been acting very shady. Police begin to investigate with some help from Fred. Does Mildred really know the man she married? The story takes twists and turns in the way a good mystery should.

Kim Hunter and Dean Jagger in Betrayed (1944)

This was a new-to-me noir and I quite enjoyed it. The movie can be melodramatic at times especially when things heat up towards the end. But overall its an enjoyable 67 minute poverty row noir. Dean Jagger effectively plays the paranoid salesman on the run. Kim Hunter is charming as Mildred and I like that her character grows from befuddled to more independently minded. Milton Kibbee adds a bit of dark humor at the beginning of the film. Neil Hamilton, a familiar face in the 1930s and 1940s, plays Lieutenant Blake. Rhonda Fleming has a bit part in the last scene of the movie which effectively closes the loop on the entire plot.

Mitchum and a dog. Enough said?

Then there is Robert Mitchum. I might be biased considering the fact that he's my favorite actor but Mitchum is an absolute charmer in this movie. There were a few glorious moments for swooning. He's shirtless in the Turkish bath scene. Mitchum is at the peak of his handsomeness and the camera lingers long enough on his beautiful face for viewers to take in some of his gorgeous features. And he's often seen with an adorable Boston Terrier. My husband said "Robert Mitchum chillin' with a dog, that's all you need in your life." Too true. Too true. There's one important scene at the height of the film's drama that Mitchum may have overacted. He was still relatively knew to acting and this was before subtlety became his strong suit.

Betrayed (1944) is a good noir with a fine cast, decent tension and a fun plot twist. TCM will be showing it as When Strangers Marry (1944) on Robert Mitchum day August 6th during Summer Under the Stars. That day also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Mitchum's birth.

Betrayed (1944) is available from the Warner Archive Instant Streaming. This movie is also available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive's shop. You can buy the DVD-R by using this link. Shopping through my buy links and banners helps support this site. Thank you!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive Instant for the opportunity to review this film!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780316355056
June 2017

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is considered one of the greatest sports films of all time. It served as the template for how movies about inspirational athletes would be made. It cemented Lou Gehrig as not only a legend of baseball but an important figure in American history. And Gehrig's final speech, one that demonstrated gratefulness in spite of his dire circumstances, would inspire generations to come. 75 years after it's initial release the film still has the power to move audiences to tears.

“Its greatest achievement was to establish a formidable, continuing physical legacy for Gehrig, almost like an annuity that renews itself with each showing.” - Richard Sandomir

Lou Gehrig had a fantastic career throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the Yankee's first baseman. His records for home runs and consecutive games played are still impressive many years later. Gehrig's life was cut short at the tender age of 37 when he died from ALS. His name would become synonymous with ALS and up until recently it was generally referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It wasn't long after he died when Hollywood realized that Gehrig's story would make for a great movie. But it took Gehrig's widow Eleanor to lead the charge.

Richard Sandomir's new book The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic profiles the making of the movie in great detail. Gehrig died in June 1941 and the movie was released in July 1942. He was still in the public consciousness and with the start of WWII, audiences were ripe for a good story about a homegrown hero. Eleanor Gehrig was instrumental in getting Gehrig's story in front of Hollywood moguls. She was driven both by a desire to support herself and to honor her husband's legacy.

Producer Sam Goldwyn saw more potential in the love story between Gehrig and Eleanor than he did in Gehrig’s baseball career. The problem was Goldwyn knew nothing about baseball. In fact most of the people who worked on the film knew little to nothing about America’s greatest pastime. But what they did know is that Gehrig's story was special and if they played their cards right it would make for a blockbuster film.

The first step in making the film was to find the man who would play Gehrig. An open audition was conducted but it became clear early on that Gary Cooper would be a great fit. There were problems at first. Cooper was older, not very familiar with baseball and was a righty to Gehrig's lefty. But, as Sandomir points out, Cooper playing Gehrig was "a near-perfect marriage of modest, heroic subject and an actor who specialized in modest, heroic characters." The role of Eleanor was important too. Actress Teresa Wright was new to Hollywood but her career was already skyrocketing. She had an Academy Award nomination under her belt and this film would be her first opportunity to shine as a leading lady. With the real-life Eleanor full involved in overseeing the making of the film, there was a lot of pressure on Wright to capture the spirit of Eleanor and to do the film justice.

Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Photo source: Doctor Macro

As is the case with many biopics of the golden age of Hollywood, The Pride of the Yankees plays fast and loose with the facts. However, Eleanor Gehrig made sure that her husband and his sport were portrayed as accurately as possible. Author Sandomir goes into detail about all of the preparation for both the fictional and biographical aspects of the film. There was both the care and neglect to accurately portray baseball. There was an effort to make Cooper look like a real left-handed baseball player (the author adeptly debunks the myth that the scenes were flipped for the camera). I was particularly fascinated with the scenes that didn't make it into the final film. For example, after Gehrig's baseball career ended he had a short stint as a parole commissioner, a part of his life I'm very eager to read more about. A scene in which he is checking in on a parolee dying of cancer was written for the film. However, the film ends with the rousing final speech which suited the movie and made for a more dramatic ending.

I loved reading about Gehrig’s famous “The luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. According to Sandomir, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. There are only snippets from news clips and a bunch of transcriptions that vary greatly. It was never fully transcribed and its very possible that Gehrig had written some of it down but also spoke some lines that just came to him. The film alters the speech and includes the famous line at the very end. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." is #38 on the AFI's top 100 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper - The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There's so much more in this book too. We learn about Babe Ruth's involvement in the movie and his connections to Hollywood. Then there was Lou Gehrig's own, brief and failed attempt at an acting career. There is a wealth of information about the actors, the shooting, the editing, the screenwriting, the film's reception and what happened to the key players years after the movie was released. At the heart of the book is the story of a fallen man who lived the American dream and who's story was shared in a way that ensured his legacy for the rest of the century and beyond.

If you enjoyed The Pride of the Yankees (1942) I implore you to read this book. It's a fantastic deep dive into the making of a classic. My only small complaint about the book is that it does lapse into repetition as well some unnecessary plot description. In some circumstances including the plot makes sense in context but at other points it felt like filler. However, if it's been a while since you've seen the movie the plot points included might serve as a refresher. Sandomir's book is well-rounded and well-researched. It's the story of a movie but it's also so much more than that. It makes for great summer reading. I took this book to the beach with me and lounged with it on my front porch.

This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the good folks at Hachette books for the opportunity to review this book. As a treat for my readers they are generously offering 10 copies of the book for giveaway! The contest runs from now until Sunday. Good luck!

CONTEST IS NOW OVER. Congrats to the winners: Vanessa, Keisha, Lindsay, Meg, John, Noelle, Christopher, Christian, Moshe & JT!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

It's a cinephile's dream to unearth a trove of silent gems. Films unseen for many decades, written off as lost forever are brought to life again. When this event occurs usually one or two films are found in someone's attic or shed. Sometimes these discoveries happen in lands many miles away from birthplace of the film. We hear about newly discovered silents, sometimes entire films, sometimes just fragments, coming from South America or Australia.

"Dawson had an idle, captive audience ready to be entertained." - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada is over three thousand miles away from Hollywood. It's an isolated city in the heart of the gold rush territory of the north. Once a gambling town that suffered from countless fires, it eventually became the home of a small community of just under 1,000 people. In the 1910s and 1920s, Dawson City residents were captivated by the silent films shown at their local athletic center's family theater. Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution. Back in those days, film distributors would send out nitrate prints for rental periods. After the rental period was over, the theaters would send back the prints. Because Dawson was so far away, it would sometimes take 2-3 years to arrive in Dawson. Not only was it cost-prohibitive to pay to get the prints back, by then the distributors were no longer interested in them. The local Dawson bank was in charge of making sure the films were only screened during that rental period before locking them up. As the years passed they ran out of room. Crates of nitrates were set ablaze, dumped in the Yukon river and just over 500 reels were used to fill a pool in the local athletic center.  Over 50 years later, those reels, buried in permafrost and forgotten were unearthed.

A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time.
A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time. Photo source: Kino Lorber

"The world outside of Yukon flickered through their screens."  - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Director Bill Morrison's new documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), explores the discovery of those 500 reels but also the history of Dawson City and it's long connection with Hollywood. The documentary has no narration and only a couple of interviews at the beginning and the end of the film. Most of it watches like a silent movie. It's made of photographic images shot in the Ken Burns style as well as a plethora of film clips, many of which are Dawson City film finds. Morrison and his team expertly weave together photographs, film clips, captions and ethereal music. Audiences will learn about the early days of Dawson City, time spent there and in the Yukon by known Hollywood figures such as Sid Grauman, Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor. We learn about volatile medium of nitrate film and the neglect of silent film in the talkie era.

When you watch this documentary, you get a sense of how movies made the world seem smaller and more accessible. I'm fascinated by how the filmmakers were able to incorporate so much relevant footage. For example, director Alice Guy-Blache is briefly profiled and not only do we see film footage of the Solax Film Laboratories fire (she was co-founder and director of that laboratory) but also a clip from one of her silent films that was uncovered in the Dawson City find. Some might find this film a bit quirky with its lack of talking heads and narration. The music at times is surreal and ominous. I enjoyed all these elements but for some who are used to traditionally styled documentaries it would be important to know this before diving head first into the film.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is an expertly crafted documentary and a fascinating story of one small town and their extraordinary find. It's well worth the time of any hardcore cinephile.

Dawson City: Frozen Time screened earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival and I unfortunately wasn't able to attend that screening. I put it high on my wish list of new documentaries to watch and it did not disappoint. The film is currently on theater tour across the country with screenings books from now until early September. You can find future screening dates here. Kino Lorber will be releasing Dawson City: Frozen Time on DVD in the near future.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a screener for this film!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sadie McKee (1934)

Franchot Tone, Akim Tamiroff, Joan Crawford and Edward Arnold in Sadie McKee (1934)
Franchot Tone, Akim Tamiroff, Joan Crawford and Edward Arnold in Sadie McKee (1934)

On the heels of Dancing Lady (1933), MGM teamed up off screen couple Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone for another on screen romance in Sadie McKee (1944). But it seems like Hollywood wouldn't let Crawford be the apple of one eye. She has to be desired by several. Crawford stars as Sadie McKee, a maid working for the wealthy Alderson family. Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone) has returned home to discover that Sadie has blossomed into a beauty. But Sadie is in love with the formerly employed Tommy (Gene Raymond). The two run off to New York together and plan to marry. Sadie befriends Opal (Jean Dixon), a street-wise dame with a penchant for a good time. While the two are waiting for Tommy to show up at the courthouse for the wedding, he runs off with show girl Dolly (Esther Ralston). Sadie is destitute of both money and love. She starts a new life as a show girl (plus a little more) to make ends meet. That's when she meets the incredibly wealthy and incredibly drunk Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold). Brennan is smitten with her and through marriage offers her an opportunity to get ahead. Sadie takes advantage of this even though it puts her in the precarious situation of taking care of an alcoholic. She also suffers the disdain of Brennan's friend and her old acquaintance Alderson and Brennan's staff including his butler Finnegan (Leo G. Carroll). Sadie takes on the task of saving Brennan from himself, closing one chapter in her life and starting a new one.

From the very beginning it's established that Sadie McKee is the ideal physical specimen of womanhood. She has enough sass and sex appeal to keep men interested. And the three men she lures are all grossly inadequate. Tommy can't be held down, Brennan suffers from advanced alcoholism and Alderson is a spoiled rich playboy. Although Sadie is swayed by her emotions. she's the only one of the four who seems to have her shit together. She also has the support of her best friend and frequent voice of reason, Opal. The role of Sadie McKee fits Joan Crawford's persona perfectly. She embodied the spirit of the working girl who moves up the ranks and proves her worth. It's satisfying to watch her in parts like this. One could say that Sadie McKee is the pre-code precursor to Mildred Pierce (1945).

1934 brought on a tougher enforcement of the Hays Production Code. Sadie McKee slips in just in time and there are a few elements that classify it as a pre-code film. For example, the unmarried Sadie and Tommy sleep in the same bedroom together, albeit with her in the bed and him on the chair. Sexpot neighbor Dolly, played by Esther Ralston, channels Mae West and lures Tommy away from Sadie. When Dolly and Sadie have a showdown later in the film Dolly suggests that Sadie is a glorified prostitute. Pre-Code expert Danny Reid also points out that when Opal and Sadie are at city hall waiting for Tommy, a police officer approaches them and asks if they're getting married. He says it in a way that both suggests they might be marrying each other but also that they're waiting for their fiancees. I'd also like to point out the scene in which Finnegan the butler, played by Leo G. Carroll in his first on screen role, undresses a drunk Brennan (Edward Arnold), preparing him for bed. It's an oddly intimate scene that lingers just enough to give time for the audience to wonder.

Sadie McKee is based on a story by Vina Delmar who wrote many novels, short stories and screenplays including The Awful Truth (1937). She appears in the trailer for Sadie McKee as you can see below. The story suffers from trying to do too much. It starts off as a sweet romance between two people who escape the upstairs-downstairs life for a fresh start in New York City. Then it takes a twist when it becomes a story of a poor show girl who marries a rich alcoholic. Then it takes a somber tone when the first couple are reunited. And then of course Franchot Tone's continual attraction and momentary disgust for Sadie/Crawford adds several more plot points. One could say that Sadie McKee is an epic that didn't quite reach it's potential.

Even with its many flaws this is a gem of a film. Its such a joy to see cast members like Crawford, Tone, Arnold, Carroll, Raymond, Ralston and Dixon in action. Not to mention one of my personal favorites, Akim Tamiroff who plays night club owner Riccorri. I'll watch him in anything. Also in the movie are singer Gene Austin and the jazz duo Candy and Coco who all make their screen debut and play a couple of numbers in the movie.

Sadie McKee ad from The Film Daily April-June 1934
Sadie McKee ad from The Film Daily April-June 1934

Sadie McKee got mixed reviews but still proved profitable enough for MGM that after a batch of successful films Crawford was able to renegotiate her contract. According to Joan Crawford biographer Donald Spoto, Crawford said, "I was pretty unhappy with the way the picture was cut. Perhaps it will make sense, but I doubt it."

Interesting fact: The Library Hotel in New York City plays Sadie McKee on a loop on a TV in their rooftop lounge. I've attended a few parties in that space and that movie is always on. I couldn't find any information why that film in particular was selected for the loop. It's a curious choice especially considering their rooftop bar is just around the corner. Maybe they thought a sobering film about alcoholism might encourage patrons to drink less.

Sadie McKee (1934) DVD

Sadie McKee (1934) is available from the Warner Archive Collection. You can buy the DVD-R from the WB Shop by using this link.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Sadie McKee (1934) for review!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Film Noir: Light and Shadow

Film Noir: Light and Shadow
edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini
Paperback ISBN: 9781495058974
February 2017
352 pages
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Purchase Film Noir: Light and Shadow at the Backwing online store for 25% off and free shipping.

Film noir is a rich source for academic study. It lends itself to close examination, dissection, comparison, research and deep thought. For classic film buffs and academics alike, studying film noir is a pleasure. Not only do watching these movies bring us joy but the exploration into the nuances of the genre is just as rewarding.

Film noir experts and authors Alain Silver and James Ursini teamed up to create Film Noir: Light and Shadow, a new anthology that collects essays written by film professors and other writers. Silver and Ursini have collaborated on various other film noir books. In this tome, the essays focus on the visual aspects of the film noir genre. All elements of the visual style of noir are explored including visual motifs, lighting, camera movement, positioning, framing, use of close-ups, title sequences and landscape. Other topics include symbolism, song and dance, dream sequences, the portrayal of romance, gangsters, cinematography, expressionism, TV noir and more. There are a few articles on film noir elements in movies outside the genre including It's a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock's canon. Many of your favorite films noir are discussed including The Killers, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Past and more.

The book doesn't rely solely on text to explain the visual elements of film noir. There are over 700 images in the book including title sequences, publicity photos and a variety of screen caps. The book contains fourteen original essays as well as some updated previously published pieces. Included among the authors are Richard Edwards, who taught the TCM and Ball State University online course on film noir back in 2015, as well as Cheri Chinen Biesen, Imogen Sara Smith and others.

I've partnered with Applause Theatre and Cinema Books to offer my readers an opportunity to check out this book. I'm hosting a giveaway for 2 copies of Film Noir: Light and Shadow. This contest is open internationally and runs until midnight EST on Wednesday July 5th. Two winners will be chosen on Thursday July 6th and contacted via e-mail. Good luck!

Giveaway is now over! Congrats to the winners Maddy A. (favorite film noir: Crossfire) and David N. (favorite film noir: The Big Heat). Thanks to everyone who entered!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017)

If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017)
"__________ is still alive?!" 

Just fill in the blank with the name of a very elderly actor, actress or entertainer and this is a question I hear on a regular basis. As someone who has an interest in classic movies and 20th century culture and entertainment, I cherish the fact that some of my favorites are living legends. It makes me happy to see so many of them in their 90s and 100s thriving and in many cases still working. It pains me when people relegate the status of old people as useless or simply close to death. People fear growing old and dying so when they see an elderly person their defenses go up and they lash out. It's my belief that we should respect and treasure the elderly. They bear the wisdom of the decades and we have much to learn from them about living life.

This is why it is so important that everyone watch HBO's new documentary If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017). This doc explores several figures both in and out of the entertainment industry who are living life to the fullest in their 90s or 100s. The documentary follows legendary comedian Carl Reiner, 95, with the help of his nephew George Shapiro, as he seeks out the stories of those who are thriving in their advanced years. The title of the documentary is inspired by this often repeated quote:

"Every morning before having breakfast, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I'm listed. If I'm not, I have my breakfast." - Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear

Many familiar faces can be found in the documentary. Tony Bennett who recently turned 90 serenades us with a song. Reiner chats with long-time friends producer/comedian Mel Brooks, 90 and TV producer Norman Lear, 93. Their casual chats produce some of the best moments in the film. Reiner has a hilarious conversation with Betty White about age, having purpose in life and sexuality. At 94 she says, "I don't want to be a burden to anybody. Except possibly Robert Redford." Dick Van Dyke, 90 never lost his goofiness or energy over the years. There are numerous scenes with him in the documentary including sit down chat with Reiner but we also see him heading to Capitol Records to record songs with his wife Arlene, at a Barnes & Noble for the launch of his book Keep Moving (I've reviewed it here) and dancing around and being jovial out and about and in his home.

Carl Reiner and Betty White, If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017)
Carl Reiner and Betty White

Comic book creator Stan Lee shares his life's story as well as some insights on what his life his like at the age of 90. All of these figures are healthy and thriving. This gets Reiner thinking about people who are at an advanced age yet are suffering from poor health. He visits Kirk Douglas, 99 at the time of filming, who is still dealing with the aftermath of his stroke. They have a honest chat about death. Reiner shares the story of his wife Estelle's passing and Douglas relates the story of his mother's passing. Douglas' mother told him, "don't be scared. It happens to everyone."

Then there are the discoveries. Those wonderful figures who grace this documentary and charm us with their wit, wisdom and joie de vivre. Moments spent watching them were my favorites. There are a few you might of heard of including fashion icon Iris Apfel, 94 who is the figure of a fantastic documentary Iris (2014) directed by Albert Maysles. Then there is singer/actress Patricia Morison who at the age of 101 still enjoys singing, delights us with her joy and tantalizes us with a scandalous story about Yul Brynner. I fell head over heels for a few of these discoveries. There is Stan Harper, the world's greatest harmonica player. He was Reiner's old army buddy and can be seen at the age of 14 in One-Third a Nation (1939). Fyvush Finkel, 92 a Yiddish comedian and singer who lives to perform. He quipped "as soon as I get on that stage I have all the energy in the world." Lounge pianist and music composer Irving Fields, who wrote Latin infused songs including A Latin from Manhattan, won my heart. I feel head over heels for his passion for music and his drive to keep doing what he loves to do. Unfortunately all three of these have since passed away.

Irving Fields
Irving Fields

Others who will inspire you include centenarian athlete Ida Keeling, pianist Harriet Thompson, 93, yogi and tango dancer Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, portrait artist Ray Olivere, 91 and singer Alan Bergman, 90. I particularly loved the segment with Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, 95, who was in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during WWII. We see footage of him sky diving at the age of 94. His interview was one of my favorites because of his frankness. He lived a life where he cherished simplicity and hard work. Martin reflects, "the age part is nothing. I don't feel any different today than when I was 25 years old."

There are lots of great bits of wisdom throughout the documentary. Here are some highlights:

"Life is the main gift that we have. And as long as you're here eat it up." 
Patricia Morrison

"There are two words we don't understand the importance of: over and next. When something is over its over. And then comes next." 
Norman Lear

"I do it my way. I'm not interested in being current."
Iris Apfel

"People are scared to death of age. Don't fear it. Meet it head on."
"New experiences are the only thing that you can collect in life that end up being worth it."
Dick Van Dyke

 "Don't lose your curiosity." 
Ray Olivere

"I go on and on because I love what I do."
Irving Fields 

"Being old is like a whole new adventure. You can't describe it to young people."
Stan Lee

"You gotta be the boss of your body."
Ida Keeling

So what is the secret of longevity? There are many answers that Reiner as well as longevity expert Dan Buettner share in the documentary. These include: Have a social life. Be optimistic about your future. Have a purpose for every day. Be physically fit and enjoy life. Then there are those elements that are genetic or pure luck like being cognitively aware at an advanced age, avoiding fatal accidents and overall good health.

If there's one thing I hope to get across to people, its that they absolutely need to watch If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017). I could review it as a straight documentary and find its flaws. But the importance of its message and wonderful stories of beautiful lives that it shares overshadows everything else. I fell in love with this documentary and the people in it. I hope you do too.

If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017) is currently available on HBO GO and HBO Now. I hope it gets a DVD/Blu-Ray release in the near future. I'll definitely be picking up a copy. And to my TCMFF friends, you'll delight in seeing our bud Jeff from Larry Edmunds Bookshop who makes a cameo in the documentary.

*All ages listed reflect the correct age at the time of filming.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Summer Reading Challenge - First Round-Up

This year's Summer Reading challenge is off to a roaring start. 2017 has the most participants ever! The number is currently at 32. Thank you to everyone for your enthusiasm. Some of you have wanted to participate in the past and made this your first time. Others have been participating for years. I'm grateful to have you all on board.

I collected the first batch of reviews and so far so good. Vanessa is putting us all to shame and she's almost done with her challenge! Andy's got 4 down and several of you have already posted your first reviews. Good work! For those of you still working on yours, keep at it! I only got one book read and reviewed this month but am furiously working on my second.

There is still time to sign up if you're interested. The full details are on my Summer Reading page. Now for the reviews:

Andy W.  - Journeys in Darkness and Light
Black & White Cinema: A Short History by Wheeler Winston Dixon
The Mark Hellinger Story by Jim Bishop 
Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Kate Gabrielle - Silents and Talkies
Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost by Richard Kirby

Kevin - Top 10 Film Lists
Clark Gable: Tormented Star by David Bret

Raquel S. - Out of the Past
Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion by A.T. McKenna

Rich - Wide Screen World
Tracy and Hepburn by Garson Kanin

Robby C. - Instagram
Cowboy Princess: Life With My Parents Roy Rogers and Dale Evans by Cheryl Rogers- Barnett and Frank Thompson

Sarah A. - Goodreads
The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s by Joseph Egan
This 'N That by Bette Davis and Michael Herskowitz

Vanessa B. - Goodreads
The Art of Noir by Eddie Muller
The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor & the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s by Joseph Egan
Marlene by Marlene Dietrich
Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen
Veronica, the Autobiography of Veronica Lake by Veronica Lake and Donald Bain

Friday, June 23, 2017

Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion

Showman of the Screen by A.T. McKenna
Showman of the Screen
Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion
by A.T. McKenna
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813168715
September 2016
296 pages
University Press of Kentucky

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells 

"I love this business which is not really a business. The film industry is composed of an indescribable collection of dreamers and schemers, geniuses and phonies, sharpshooters and lunatics. It's action, on the screen and off." - Joseph E. Levine

Joseph E. Levine Presents... was not just a phrase, it was a declaration. Levine was a movie producer and promoter but he also wore many other hats including exhibitor, distributor, presenter and packager. He lived and breathed the movie business and by the mid-20th Century he was practically a household name. Levine dealt in exploitation of many different types of movies including art house imports from Europe, low-budget B-movies, war epics, spaghetti westerns and mainstream films. He sought out opportunities where others would've turned up their noses. Author A.T. McKenna explains, "he dealt in films from all over the world and from all over the cultural spectrum, becoming one of the most versatile movie promoters of his generation."

In my quest to seek out the stories of those who worked behind-the-scenes in film, I was drawn to Showman of the Screen, McKenna's biography on Joseph E. Levine. What distinguishes Levine from others is that he marketed himself as much as he marketed his films. This added to his successes and even contributed to his failures. McKenna refers to Levine as a showman, much in the style of P.T. Barnum. In the book he says, "the object may not be extraordinary but the showman's job is to render the object extraordinary."

Levine grew up in poverty in the Boston's West End. He learned how to hustle and eventually got into the movie business in the 1930s. He started his own company Embassy in 1938 which grew over the years from exhibition and distribution of films no one else wanted to take on, to the production of films in the 1950s and 1960s. Levine the showman worked on many movies in varying capacities. In some cases he'd be heavily involved and in others he'd merely slap on his name to a film that he was only indirectly involved with. Levine developed the art of saturation marketing. He believed in low movie budgets but big marketing ones. The more a film was in the public consciousness, even if the movie itself wasn't very good, the better the chances it would be a box office success. Levine was a maverick in his time and McKenna wisely points out that if it wasn't for criticism from intellectuals and high-brow critics, such as Levine's long-time nemesis film critic Bosley Crowther, that he wouldn't have had the success as an industry outsider that he did.

"We will go as far as we can and stay out of jail." - Joseph E. Levine

Levine's career was full of ups and downs. McKenna points out that Levine made decisions quickly and sometimes the decisions were good ones and sometimes they were bad ones. He also had various phases in his career. At one point he championed films like the Gaslight Follies (1945) and Hercules (1959) with unconventional marketing techniques. When American audiences developed a taste for what foreign films had to offer, Levine delivered. In the late '50s and early '60s he brought films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), The Law (1959), Two Women (1960) and others to the US. For the Two Women, he worked closely with Carlo Ponti and star Sophia Loren to campaign for her eventual Oscar win. Eventually he became too public a figure and was spoofed in Godard's Contempt (1963) which he later renounced. The Maysles brothers' documentary Showman (1963) shined too bright a spotlight on Levine and he was very displeased with the final product. Levine suppressed the documentary and its the reason why its not available on DVD and only rarely screened.

"He made commercial art, and he made art commercial." - A.T. McKenna

By 1966 Levine's career hit a snag. He put his all into scandal ridden The Carpetbaggers (1964) and was embroiled in a bitter battle for the top Harlow film of 1965. There were two Harlow (1965) films one starring Carroll Baker, Levine worked on that one, and one starring Carol Lynley. His career bounced back with The Graduate (1967) and after that he almost exclusively left behind the b-movies and art house films of his former days and worked solely on what he thought were quality films. These include The Producers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), A Bridge Too Far (1977) among others. He also worked on controversial films like The Night Porter (1974). His career ended with his final film Tattoo (1981) which he worked on with his son Richard Levine.

McKenna's book isn't chronological, rather it's arranged into themed chapters focusing on one aspect of his career. It does jump around a bit but not too much that I couldn't follow the thread once I figured out what year of Levine's life was being discussed. Showman of the Screen is incredibly detailed. I've never read a biography on a film industry figure that was so focused on a career more so than the personal life of the subject. Levine's life was his career so in many ways this makes sense. Sometimes I found the story thrilling and sometimes I was bogged down by it. The book has its ups and downs much like Levine did. Overall though I enjoyed the book and I'm so glad I picked it up.

Showman of the Screen by A.T. McKenna adeptly explores the tumultuous and exciting career of bigger-than-life producer and promoter Joseph E. Levine.

Thank you to the University Press of Virginia for sending me this book for review! 

This is my first review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

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.

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