Monday, August 13, 2018

The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!: Talking Pictures from 1913!

Jack's Joke (1913)
Photo Credit: courtesy Undercrank Productions/Library of Congress

Before there was the Vitaphone there was Thomas Edison's Kinetophone. Over a decade before Al Jolson proclaimed "you ain't heard nothing yet" in The Jazz Singer (1927), Kinetophone brought talking pictures to audiences. The technology was a marriage between the Kinetoscope and the Phonograph. According to silent film accompanist Ben Model,

"Showing the films in theaters involved a complex system involving a hand-cranked projector connected by a system of pulleys to a modified Edison cylinder player at the front of the theatre, operated at both ends by technicians connected by head-sets. The Kinetophone films, like the early Vitaphone shorts, were of theatrical or vaudeville acts, dramatic scenes and musical performances."
Over two hundred Kinetophone shorts featuring vaudeville acts, musical numbers, short dramas and other theatrical productions were released. The first ones premiered in New York on February 17, 1913. Only 8 of these shorts survived and 105 years later those 8, plus a 3 minute Kinetophone lecture, are available to the general public for the first time.

Model's distribution company Undercrank Productions has recently released The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!: Talking Pictures from 1913, on DVD. It includes:

The Edison Kinetophone
The Musical Blacksmiths
The Deaf Mute: A Military Drama
The Five Bachelors
The Politician

As a bonus the set also includes the 24 minute documentary: So Amazingly Perfect They are Really Weird: The History and Restoration of Edison Kinetophone Films. The doc is hosted by George Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager for the Library of Congress. Willeman discusses at length the history behind the Kinetophone technology and provides background on the players featured in the various shorts.

Each short is roughly six minutes long and features synchronized sound. The only exception to this is The Politician which is still missing its sound cylinder. Preceding each short is a brief introduction presented in the form of title cards. These include information about the source materials, restoration and synchronization of the short film. Any syncing issues are flagged up.

I've watched a few of these Kinetophone films before at Capitolfest in 2016. It was great to see all the surviving Kinetophones in one collection. With the exception of Nursery Favorites, these have not been released to the general public since their premiere in 1913!

These Kinetophone shorts are more than just curios from the past. They're an important piece of film history. This treasure trove from a forgotten era of filmmaking is one classic film enthusiasts will want to get their hands on.

The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!: Talking Pictures from 1913! DVD is available from Undercrank Productions. Many thanks to Ben for sending me a screener to review.

Check out my red carpet interview with Ben Model at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival. He discusses at length about some of the upcoming releases from Undercrank Productions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Tender Comrade (1943)

"Teacher, Tender Comrade, Wife. A fellow farer true through life. Heart-whole and soul-free. The August Father gave to me." – Robert Louis Stevenson

Tender Comrade (1943) is a sentimental WWII drama much in the style of Since You Went Away (1944). It follows the story of Jo Jones (Ginger Rogers) a fiesty and strong-willed woman married to mild-mannered soldier Chris (Robert Ryan). After Chris’ 24 hour leave, the two say their goodbyes at a train station as he travels overseas for battle. Doing her part for the war effort, Jo works at a local aircraft factory as a welder. She becomes friendly with a trio of women who've also been left behind. There’s Barbara (Ruth Hussey), an embittered woman who harbors bad feelings for her sailor husband. She openly dates other men and is the voice of discontent among the group. Then there is Doris (Kim Hunter), a sweet and starry-eyed newlywed. A proposal and quickie marriage left her in a suspended virginal state. Then there's Helen (Patricia Collinge), the matriarch and most level-headed of the bunch. Both her husband and son are away at war. All the women struggle to make ends meet and Jo comes up with an idea: they’ll all move in together and share the expenses equally. They add a fifth, Manya (Mady Christians), a German refugee whose husband is fighting the good fight against the Nazis. She takes on a job as a housekeeper. We follow their stories as they adjust to this new arrangement. The film is broken up with flashbacks of scenes from Jo and Chris’ courtship and marriage. It’s equal parts touching and tragic, just as you’d expect a WWII movie to be.

Written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Edward Dmytryk, Tender Comrade was produced by RKO. Several endings were filmed in order to get just the right tone for the end product. According to Robert Ryan biographer Frank Jarlett, “the picture did well financially, earning $843,00 in profits for RKO, mainly because its tone of patriotic righteous indignation registered in the public’s mind at a peak emotional time.”

Ginger Rogers was on a high point in her career. She had won an Academy Award for her performance in Kitty Foyle (which was also written by Dalton Trumbo). That film did well for RKO and Tender Comrade was a psuedo follow-up to that success. For Tender Comrade, Rogers was billed as the “chin-up girl”, a role model for women embodying the ideal of strength and resilience during wartime. The film premiered in Los Angeles on December 29, 1943, just under the wire to have Rogers’ performance qualify for Academy Award submission. In the end, she didn’t receive a nomination and the film was released to the general public in June 1944. I’ve always been partial to Ginger Rogers and her performances but I felt her role as Jo was overbearing. Perhaps it was the long speeches and the constant bickering, but I found her character not as sympathetic as I wanted her to be.

On the other hand, Chris Jones was an exceptionally good part for Robert Ryan, who was still in the early days of his long acting career. Playing a leading romantic part with a major movie star helped put him on the map. Ryan is incredibly charming in this film. It’s a shame Hollywood relegated him to roles as heavies and villains because there was a “tender” side to him that really shone through.

A few years after its release, Tender Comrade developed a reputation for its perceived Communist agenda. During the HUAC investigations, the film singled out for subversive propaganda and for the term “Comrade” and its connection to Communist Russia. Although the phrase "tender comrade" is a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem The Wife and is quoted at the very start of the film, its reasonable to consider an intended dual meaning.

Trumbo is one of my favorite writers and a huge influence in my life. Reading his novel Johnny Got His Gun completely altered my perspective on the world and I tend to gravitate towards his works. I enjoyed the social commentary and the political subtext of the film even though I thought it to be overly sentimental.

Trumbo was singled out by Lela Rogers, Ginger Rogers mother, during a HUAC hearing. During the filming of Tender Comrade, Rogers started to take issue with some of the dialogue and this was a very dialogue-driven film. In one scene, the German housekeeper receives her husband medal of honor in the mail. Its decided that the medal belongs to all of them and not just Manya. Rogers was supposed to deliver the line “share and share alike, that’s democracy” but instead it was given to Kim Hunter. The film has a bit of a socialist agenda: the give women split their profits evenly, Manya becomes upset at perceived excess and Doris confesses hoarding lipsticks. However I felt the movie as had some strong patriotic messaging. There is Ginger Rogers’ grand speech about the sacrifice needed to live in a better world. And there are various references to being patriotic through rationing and also anti-German and Japanese sentiment. But in the end Dmytryk and Trumbo were both blacklisted by the HUAC and Hollywood. Dmytryk went into exile only to return to the US and give testimony which eventually cleared him from the blacklist. Trumbo was more defiant. After being jailed, he continued to work in Hollywood under pseudonyms. It wasn’t until both Otto Preminger (Exodus) and Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) publicly listed Trumbo as screenwriter in their respective films that the blacklist officially ended.

Tender Comrade holds an important place in the history of WWII films and the Hollywood Blacklist. This film makes its DVD debut thanks to the good folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

Tender Comrade (1943) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection.When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

The Warner Archive trio George, D.W. and Matt discuss the film (about 25 minutes in) on the A Colossal Collection episode of their podcast.

 Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me Tender Comrade (1943) to review!

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944)

"Trouble starts from little things. Often from some forgotten natural tendency."

It's impossible to talk about Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) without talking about its famous ending. I'm not going to even try. You've been warned.

Years ago I taped this film off of TCM and watched it with my mother. We were completely engrossed in the film and developed a growing concern for Edward G. Robinson's character. As the movie progressed we knew there was no way out for him and panic started to set in. He was getting deeper and deeper into a bad situation. What was going to happen to this poor sweet man? All he did was admire a portrait in the window. How did he get into this mess? Just as the film reached its climax we held our breath. When the ending came and we saw it was all just a dream, we breathed out a huge sigh of relief. My mother still talks about the film to this day. Sometimes she doesn't remember the title or the particulars of the story. But the ending, she'll always remember that. It's the one instance where a movie becomes its own hero and saves the audience from falling off the precipice into heart ache. And we're grateful for it.

Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in The Woman in the Window (1944)

The Woman in the Window stars Edward G. Robinson as Richard Wanley, a professor of criminal psychology. With his wife and kids away on vacation, Professor Wanley spends time with his professional peers, including district attorney (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon). All three men are going through a mid-life crisis of sorts. They all have one thing in common: the admiration of a beautiful woman whose portrait is displayed in a shop window. One evening Wanley, as he stares at the portrait, sees a reflection. It's the portrait's subject, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). What starts as an innocent flirtation ends with Wanley at Reed's apartment and a dead body. Reed's rich boyfriend tries to kill Wanley and an act of self-defense, with the help of Reed passing a pair of scissors to Wanley, will easily be misinterpreted as murder. The two plot to dispose of the body but they've gotten more than they bargained for. Reed must face her beaut Heidt (Dan Duryea) who catches wind of what happens and wants to be paid in return for his silence. And Wanley is implicating himself more and more as his district attorney friend handles the investigation. Wanley only sees one way out but luckily wakes up in time to discover it was all just a dream.

Based on the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis, The Woman in the Window was adapted to screen by Nunnally Johnson. Johnson had become a successful script writer at 20th Century Fox. Wanting to expand his business opportunities into both writing and producing, he founded International Pictures, Inc. Johnson's first project was adapting Wallis' novel onto film. He had both Fritz Lang and Edward G. Robinson in mind for the project. After Marlene Dietrich and other actresses turned down the female lead, Bennett was offered the part. Johnson's daughter Marjorie Fowler, then Marjorie Johnson, worked as an editor on the film.

Some major changes were in store for Wallis' story. According to Fritz Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, "the novel had hinted that the female lead was a prostitute; Johnson made the character more ambiguous, but still obviously a rich man's mistress." Then there was that ending. In the novel, the protagonist, a professor of English not criminal psychology, deems all hope to be lost and commits suicide. This just wouldn't do for the movie version. Johnson wanted the original ending but got push back from studio execs. According to Johnson biographer Tom Stempel, suicide was a "story solution discouraged by the Production Code. [William] Goetz insisted that the story be revealed at the end to be a dream. Johnson felt that kind of ending was a cheat but Goetz was insistent..."

And wouldn't you know it, the ending worked. The Woman in the Window was a hit at the box office. While critics complained about the ending, they praised the film overall. According to McGilligan, quoting Fritz Lang, "the happier ending 'made a difference of a million dollars more in receipts."

Upon the success of The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett and Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, teamed up to start Diana Productions named after Bennett's daughter from her first marriage. Their first production was Scarlet Street (1945) which reunites Woman's three main stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in what proved to be an eerily similar story. Many classic film fans like to joke that Scarlet and Woman are essentially the same movie.

Bennett and Lang collaborated on a total of 5 films which also include Confirm or Deny (1941), Man Hunt (1941) and the Diana Productions film Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is notable because Fritz Lang was notoriously bad with his actors and many would give up working with him after one or two films. Stars like Brigitte Helm, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda wrote off working with Lang. Sylvia Sidney, who collaborated on three films with Lang, and Bennett seemed to be the only ones who were willing to endure working with the director.

The Woman in the Window is a marvelous film. A taught film noir that tugs at your heartstrings. I love that Bennett's Alice Reed isn't a femme fatale caricature. There's more complexity than usual. Bennett really shines in this part which reminded me a bit of Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past (1947) but with more heart. Robinson does a fine job drawing out the audience's sympathy for his character. He's sweet and pathetic and we want to protect him like a baby bird that's fallen out of the nest. And Dan Duryea. Nice man in real life and pure evil on screen. A sign of true talent that he could so effectively play the opposite of himself. Robinson, Bennett and Duryea make for a dynamic trio on screen and are just as enjoyable in the next installment.

And for the record, I loved the ending. Sure it's a stereotype of an old Hollywood cop-out but I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

The Woman in the Window (1944) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The disc includes subtitles, audio commentary by film historian and film noir expert Imogen Sara Smith, and a variety of noir trailers. The film has been newly mastered in high definition and looks great on Blu-Ray. The package contains a reversible jacket with another poster design on the reverse side.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Hollywood Beach Beauties by David Wills

Hollywood Beach Beauties
Sea Sirens, Sun Goddesses, and Summer Style 1930-1970 
by David Wills
Dey Street Books
May 2018
Hardcover ISBN:978008284255
224 pages

Amazon Barnes and NoblePowells

"The women, and some of the men, were painstakingly lit and strictly posed for maximum star-power effect." - David Wills

Hollywood Beach Beauties is a hybrid: part coffee table book boasting highly quality images of classic actresses donning swimwear and part history of the evolution of the bathing suit, more notably the bikini, and how it intersected with Hollywood history.

Davis Wills' book covers the scope of Hollywood actress and swimwear over the decades. The book is divided into 4 sections: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Each section starts with a historical evaluation on swimwear for that decade. Then the text is followed by a collection of images, a mix of studio and magazine portraits, film stills, ads and movie posters. Throughout the book we learn about the cheesecake portraits that helped fuel the Hollywood publicity machine, the evolution of the bikini, and how beach culture became an important part of 1960s movies, from beach movies to James Bond. All while enjoying full-color images of glamorous movie stars clad in shapely swimwear. Key figures highlighted in the book include Raquel Welch, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and others.

I really wanted to like this book but it was a hot mess. The text was overly serious and didn't match the fun visual content of the book. However, Wills writing was very good. The text could be extracted and expanded upon to become a full-length book on the history on swimwear. For example the information on WWII textile rationing and the societal fear of exposed navels could make for some very interesting chapters/articles on their own. Overall, the text was interesting but just didn't fit this particular format.

Hollywood Beach Beauties is technically a coffee table book but the size is fairly small which makes it easy to read but not as nice as a larger format book. It's paper over board hardcover with fairly sharp corners (I scratched myself a few times). The text was presented in a large font which was awkward to read. And the subtitle is just unfortunate. Instead of 1930-1970 it should have read 1930s to 1960s which would not only have been more accurate it would have also highlighted the 1960s which is a key decade featured in the book.

I appreciated the quality of the images. While a few of the film stills were a bit fuzzy, all the other photographs and artwork were nice and sharp. I didn't care for the few images that were colorized and not listed as such (one Marilyn Monroe photo was listed as colorized in the backmatter, the image appears inside the book and on the back cover). At one point the 1960s was listed as the 60's not the '60s and at that point I was done.

I'm reviewing this book with a critical eye because I read a lot of classic film books and have high expectations. But if you don't expect much and just want a fun book filled with pictures of Hollywood actresses in bikinis, then Hollywood Beach Beauties is for you.

Many thanks  to Dey Street Books for sending me a copy of this book to review.

This is my third review for the Summer Reading Challenge.

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