Monday, June 30, 2008

Guest Blogger #3: Kevin's Submission


(The) Revisiting “Rebel” by Kevin

In 10 years you’ll never know this even happened!

This line is uttered once by each of the uncomprehending parents of Jim Stark (James Dean), the protagonist of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic “Rebel Without a Cause”. Jim’s well-meaning yet weak father (Jim Backus) tells him this before the legendary chicky run scene, a ritual where two teens each race a stolen car off the edge of cliff. The rule is that the driver who jumps out first is a chicken. Jim’s own participation in the chicky run owes itself to his need to prove his mettle to the cool kids in school, and to court his pretty, but also troubled, neighbor Judy (Natalie Wood) who runs with this crowd. When the chicky run results in the death of the other driver, Jim’s instinct to report the accident to the police is circumvented by his domineering mother (Ann Doran) who wants to save face and avoid scandal. It is here that the above line is repeated, this time by her. What Jim’s parents do not understand is that you are only as good as the decisions you make; the choices you make now will ultimately shape the person you will become later on. This is what the film is about.

I first watched this some time during my junior year of college (exactly 10 years ago), so coincidentally enough, it has taken ten years for this film to finally resonate with me. While I remember enjoying the movie back then, I wasn’t impressed enough to make a copy of it for myself. Maybe I couldn’t get past some of its melodramatics and the occasionally mannered acting of James Dean.

“you’re…Tearing.. ME APART!!!” Need I say more?

Maybe I was annoyed by the fact that the character, Plato (Sal Mineo), whose adoration for Jim Stark is so sensitively portrayed throughout the movie, descends into madness by the end of the movie…an outcome typical for gay characters in movies of this time. Or maybe I was prevented from liking the movie because all the crazy events implausibly take place over the course of a single day.

All this being said, I have come to the conclusion that I was fated to see “Rebel Without a Cause” again.

I date it back to the end of March when I visited Hollywood for the first time. My friend Blythe quizzed me about the Griffith Observatory, asking me if I knew which famous movie was shot there. I had no idea. I am not sure whether or not he told me the answer by the time we finally visited the Observatory on our last day, but when I finally saw the Observatory with my own eyes, the memories of “Rebel’s” knife fight scene came flooding back. It‘s more than possible that this trip led me to eventually buy myself the James Dean DVD box set, and to dress up as James Dean in his most iconic film role for my movie character-themed 30th Birthday Party a couple months later.

My instant recollection of “Rebel Without a Cause” while at the Griffith Observatory is a testament to how well Nicholas Ray used locations in this film We don’t often think about it, but the setting of a movie really dictates how we receive and absorb it. The locations in “Rebel” really support it thematically. This movie depicts teenagers literally living on the edge, so the fact that the Griffith Observatory is situated high in the Hollywood Hills is perfectly suitable to this aspect of the film, not to mention the later chicky run scene at Millertown Bluff. The other great location in this movie is the abandoned mansion in which Jim, Judy and Plato take refuge. I was struck by the scenes taking place at the swimming pool in particular. The love and camaraderie between the three characters at this point in the films contrasts with the stark emptiness of the swimming pool at night in an eerie kind of way.

Another hallmark of “Rebel Without a Cause” is its composition of images in widescreen CinemaScope format. The showiest and most breath-taking shot is one of Jim’s mother as she descends the staircase and approaches him. Jim’s reclining upside down on the living room couch, and the shot, taken from his point-of-view, mirrors this! Another great shot occurs in the middle of the confrontation scene between Jim and his parents. Jim’s mother is at the top of the staircase yelling at Jim and the father in a threatening manner. The father is at the bottom of the staircase, pleading and placating. Jim is in the middle and then the camera does something really bold. It tilts! This tilting gives the viewer a feeling of a being on a seesaw and, as a result, supports this intense battle of wills in a subtle and visual way. Virtuoso shots like these were so compromised in the days of pan-and-scan VHS format. It confirms my belief that DVD is the best thing that has happened to movies, particularly the classics.

“Rebel Without a Cause” stills remains fresh after over 50 years. Despite some moments where it feels dated (one teen uses the word “poopheads” during the Griffith Observatory knife fight) there are many elements that are pretty ballsy! Many scenes and inferences in this film raised some red flags with the censors at the time, and it’s easy to see why. I’m referring to the fact that the cars they race at the Millertown Bluff are stolen cars. The cars aren’t shown to be stolen. It is just implied. I think the shock value of this is the way in which the delinquency of these otherwise wholesome-looking, upper middle-class teens is underplayed and incidental to the plot.

I could go on and on about all the technical aspects and great production values, but at the end of the day I like a movie that affects me on an emotional level. I still feel that “Rebel Without a Cause” is full of melodramatics, but it’s extremely eloquent in the way it depicts Jim’s desire to live up to his best self and intentions, to be able to live authentically even when he‘s surrounded by inauthentic people who role-play and cave in to the expectations of others. The film drives home the difficulty of making personal decisions that could affect how one lives one’s life. Jim’s parents are illustrations of the distorted and jaded person Jim could potentially become if he allows himself to make decisions based on cowardice and selfishness, as they have. Universal themes like these make it so clear why this movie still holds up today.

For these reasons, I feel very glad to have revisited “Rebel". Or maybe I was revisited by it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Taking a Break

I'm taking a bit of a break from posting. I have 2 weeks left of my last class, in my last semester of Grad school and I'll need to concentrate on that. Plus I need to deal with some personal stuff.

However, I am looking forward to some things coming up.

1) Post about Teacher's Pet (1957)
2) Watching Bette Davis films at the Brattle Theater
3) Finishing The Star Machine
4) Mickey Rooney! (more on that later)
5) Reading Choking on Marlon Brando
6) Having more time to read and watch movies! Yay!

If you are still interested in being a guest blogger, please send me a post. I'll make sure to post it here in a timely manner.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Guest Blogger #2: Haze's Submission

My good friend Haze (whom I like to think of as woman extraordinaire) created a post of her top 10 favorite musicals along with her favorite songs and scenes. And if anyone know's her musicals, it's Haze. Have fun with the links, a lot of them are to actual YouTube clips.

Haze's Top 10 Favorite Musicals

1) Annie (1982)
Favorite Song: We've Got Annie
Favorite Scene: Annie beats up boy in the alley after rescuing Sandy

2) Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Favorite Song: Good Morning
Favorite Scene: Kathy pops out of the cake

3) The Sound of Music (1965)
Favorite Song: Edelweiss
Favorite Scene: Maria uses the whistle to call Captain von Trapp

4) South Pacific (1958)
Favorite Song: Wash That Man Right out of my Hair
Favorite Scene: Sailors singing There’s Nothing Like a Dame

5) Oklahoma (1955)
Favorite Song: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’
Favorite Scene: Aunt Eller dancing at the train station with the cowboys

6) White Christmas (1954)
Favorite Song: Sisters
Favorite Scene: Bob and Phil do the sister act

7) Curly Top (1935)
Favorite Song: Animal Crackers in my Soup
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth takes the pony to bed with her

8) Going My Way (1944)
Favorite Song: Swinging on a Star
Favorite Scene: Father O’Malley surprises Father Fitzgibbon

9) Easter Parade (1948)
Favorite Song: I Love a Piano
Favorite Scene: Nadine in her orange evening gown with the puppy

10) Mary Poppins (1964)
Favorite Song: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
Favorite Scene: Jumping into the chalk drawings at the park

Friday, June 13, 2008

Get Your Read On

Since I work in the book industry, I feel a responsibility to talk about the wealth of great books out there on classic films. Yes! Everything from actor biographies, classic film studies to the personal film experience. Here are a few upcoming books that I would like to point out as potentially of interest to classic film fans. What better way to spend that stimulus check and buy some of these books from your local independent bookstore? The links below are all directed to a great local indie, Brookline Booksmith. Enjoy.

Ernie: The Autobiography
by Ernest Borgnine
August 2008

Steve McQueen: A Life in Pictures
Anova Books
July 2008

Choking on Marlon Brando
by Antonia Quirke
Overlook Press
June 2008

Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door
Virgin Books Limited
June 2008

True Grace: The Life and Times of an American Princess
St. Martin's Press
June 2008

The Loveliest Woman in America: A Tragic Actress, Her Lost Diaries, and Her Granddaughter's Search for Home
William Morrow & Company
June 2008

Carole Landis: A Most Beautiful Girl
University of Mississippi Press
June 2008
(also check out the other books in the University of Mississippi Press' Hollywood Legends Series)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Partying Norma Shearer Style

My good friend Kevin had his 30th Birthday party on Saturday night. On his invitation, it suggested that people dress as their favorite movie character. I decided to dress up as Norma Shearer when she played Jerry in The Divorcee (1930). There was one particular outfit she had on that I wanted to try to duplicate. It was a silk v-neck blouse with long sleeves (I'm guessing it's cream) and a high-waisted skirt. She also sports a cocktail ring and an art-deco necklace. And of course, her crown of curls which was Queen Norma Shearer's trademark. I like to think that my version was a contemporary take on that one outfit. I even had my hair done and don red lipstick to complete the ensemble. I'm happy to say that lots of other people joined in. Of those who were there included Clifton Webb, Carmen Miranda, one of the Slapshot Hanson brothers, Elaine Page's Juno, Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, Faye Dunaway's Bonnie and Warren Beatty's Clyde, and even Johnny Depp's. One of my favorites was Olivia Newton-John's Kira from Xanadu.

Below is my original inspiration as well as me and Kevin (he's dressed up as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Guest Blogger Post #1: Bob's Submission

Yay! I have my very first ever Guest Blogger post ready and waiting for you to read. It comes to you from Bob. Enjoy!

The Game's Afoot! Sherlock Holmes on DVD

by Bob

Between 1939 and 1946, two studios – Fox and Universal – produced fourteen Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.

Although many actors have portrayed Holmes and Watson, I have always regarded these as the definitive characterizations. Rathbone, with his precise diction and aquiline profile, seemed born to play the part, and Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, amiable Watson, although not faithful to Conan Doyle, provided welcome comic relief and delightfully counterbalanced Holmes’ unrelenting self-assurance. Rathbone’s career, which had reached its apogee during the 1930’s (in 1939, he was the highest-paid freelance movie actor in the world, with a history of strong performances in such films as ANNA KARENINA, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and ROMEO AND JULIET) was never quite the same after the Holmes series ended; he later said that playing the master detective had irrevocably typecast him. That may have been true, but it also assured him an indelible place in movie history.

For years these films were a staple of local TV stations – Boston Channel 56 often showed a couple of them every Saturday night. Unfortunately, the available prints, as well as the VHS and later the DVD releases, were often in mediocre to execrable condition, much to the chagrin of movie buffs.

Those deficiencies were finally corrected about five years ago, when the UCLA Film and Television Archive, working with the best available materials, released all fourteen films on DVD (through MPI video) in beautifully restored editions. Although some of the films are in slightly better condition than others, all of them are far superior to anything previously available. Each film runs under ninety minutes and David Stuart Davies provides commentary. (Please note that I am unfamiliar with Mr. Davies, and I have not yet listened to any of his remarks.) Unfortunately, the release of these treasures garnered little attention, so permit me to offer a brief summary.


Fox released both these films in 1939, to critical and popular acclaim. These were “A” class productions. HOUND is probably the most famous of the Holmes stories; and although the movie has superb production values and a great cast, I think it moves a bit slowly. Watch for the final line of dialogue, a not very subtle reference to Holmes’ drug addiction. How that got past the censors is perhaps a greater mystery than any case Holmes ever had to solve!

ADVENTURES is, I think, based on a stage play rather than one of stories, and it is fast-paced, suspenseful, and a lot of fun. Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plots to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Moriarty is played by British actor George Zucco, who after a distinguished stage career, found himself in Hollywood cast as assorted villains and especially mad scientists. Zucco makes a splendid Moriarty; the murderous professor rebukes his butler for allowing one of his prize orchids to die. (“You murdered a flower, Dawes; and to think that for merely killing a man I was locked up in a filthy prison for nearly a year.”) I have always loved Zucco: His suave, cultivated manner is undermined by just enough seediness to ensure (as I believe one critic wrote) that the characters he played would always be blackballed by the very best clubs.

Fox made no more Holmes films. In 1942, Universal picked up the series and made twelve films, also starring Rathbone and Bruce, from that year until 1946. These were “B” pictures, but the production values remained high (utilizing Universal’s vast array of standing sets), and the casts were made up of topnotch character actors. All of these movies except the first were directed by Roy William Neill, a master at wringing every bit of atmosphere, suspense, and excitement from modest budgets. Frank Skinner’s music effectively supports the action.

The Universal films relocate Holmes to the mid-20th century, and in several of them he matches wits with Nazi agents. They are, in order of original release date:




MPI sells the Universal films in box sets, four per set. The Fox-produced films are sold separately.

All the Universal films are worth owning, but in my opinion the best of the series are in the first two sets.

VOICE OF TERROR: Holmes battles Nazis. This marked the screen debut of veteran stage actor Thomas Gomez, whose later films include PHANTOM LADY and KEY LARGO. VOICE is blatant Hollywood wartime propaganda, but the cause was worthy and the movie is entertaining. (Good trivia question: Who provides the voice for “the voice of terror”?)

SECRET WEAPON: Professor Moriarty is back, determined to steal a new bombsight and sell it to the Germans. That wonderful British actor Lionel Atwill (sans mustache) makes a gleefully malevolent, sadistic Moriarty; one imagines him roasting ants with a magnifying glass as a boy.

WASHINGTON: Holmes bests fascism again, this time in the states, which also gives the film a chance to promote Anglo-American unity. George Zucco makes a welcome return appearance as a cad.

DEATH: A fairly conventional murder puzzle, set at Musgrave Manor. Very reminiscent of the Conan Doyle yarns.

PEARL: This involves the search for a rare and valuable pearl. The criminal mastermind employs a strangler played by Rondo Hatton, whose real life glandular disorder got him a brief career in the movies, but always as a grotesque killer.

SCARLET CLAW: Arguably the best of all the Holmes movies. Murders on the moors are committed by what the villagers believe to be a monster. Atmospheric, exciting, and even scary (for the time), this film is a reminder of the great Universal horror movies of the 1930’s.

SPIDER WOMAN: Great fun. Gail Sondergaard plays the title’s character, who puts poisonous arachnids to diabolic use. Sondergaard had a slinky, sinister, somewhat erotic mien that nearly got her the role of the wicked witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ, before the studio decided to make the character less sexy and cast Margaret Hamilton.

HOUSE OF FEAR: Another enjoyable but somewhat less imaginative mystery. Holmes is called upon by The Good Comrades to find out who is bumping them off one-by-one.

The last four films are pretty good, but not nearly as interesting as the first eight. THE WOMAN IN GREEN is worth noting because Moriarty returns for the last time in the person of the peerlessly arrogant Henry Daniell. In his autobiography, Rathbone called Daniell the best Moriarty. I don’t agree – he is a bit too restained; Zucco was more sinister and Atwill more twisted – but that marvelous actor is always worth watching, and – especially – worth hearing. He had a quiet, sophisticated, but terribly icy way of speaking that was truly memorable. If a dry martini could talk, I think it would sound just like Henry Daniell. (For his role as the villain in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, Christopher Guest was inspired by the late actor; he does a good job imitating Daniell’s frigid diction.)

All these DVDs are still available in some stores and on the Web. I recommend them to Holmes aficionados and mystery fans, and there is even enough chiaroscuro in many of them to give devotees of film noir a quick fix.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Their Own Desire (1929)

There has been a lot of blogging about this lesser known Norma Shearer - Robert Montgomery vehicle.

Classic Montgomery
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic Ramblings

So I thought I would jump on the bandwagon and share a few thoughts about Their Own Desire (1929).

1) Style - Art deco at it's finest. Also, rich people at play. Complete with polo playing, swimming and adultery. I want to steal all of Norma Shearer's clothes, as I do with pretty much any film she does that isn't a period piece.

2) Divorce - Today, films about people getting divorced would probably involve one party moving on and finding love with someone else. But I noticed in films from 20's to the 40's, it usually involves the divorcees getting back with each other. Interesting.

3) Lewis Stone - He is the spitting image of one of my favorite toll collectors, Mike. And otherwise, I think he was very elegant and graceful. While he didn't quite fit with either of his two love interests (his wife and his mistress), he and Norma Shearer went together beautifully as father and daughter.

Monday, June 2, 2008

New Discovery - Young Leslie Nielsen

I have made a new discovery. Well not, exactly new, since it's about 50 years ago, but "new" to me at least. Leslie Nielsen was HOT. Yes, I have a humongous crush on the young Leslie Nielsen after seeing him in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) (see my previous post about the Tammy movies). Wow! And he's half-naked in at least two scenes. And water is involved. Either from swimming or from rain. Move aside hunka Kirk Douglas, young Leslie Nielsen is giving you a run for your money!

Don't believe me? Still think he's just that old guy with great hair from all those spoofs? Well get over it. I know I had to, since I still think about him as the narrator of one my favorite kids' show Katie & Orbie as well as Mr. Magoo! But I was willing to put that all aside and embrace the hotness. I bring to you evidence in the form of pictures. And sorry, I didn't include any of him fully-clothed. That would defeat the purpose.

My heart beats so joyfully
To think of hot Leslie Nielsen
Dripping wet in swim trunks
Raquelle, Raquelle,
Raquelle's in Love

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