Wednesday, July 31, 2013

TCM Summer Under the Stars 2013

TCM Summer Under the Stars starts tomorrow! Which day are you most excited about? I'm very excited about Mary Boland, Ramon Novarro, Ann Blyth, Steve McQueen, Fred MacMurray, Kirk Douglas, Mickey Rooney, Hattie McDaniel, Glenda Farrell and others. The days I'm most excited about are the ones showcasing stars I'm not as familiar with. I have already seen so many of the films they are showing on the Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day and Bette Davis days that I'm looking forward to other days with a lot more new-to-me films. And even stars I adore like Kirk Douglas and Mickey Rooney both have a lot of films that I haven't seen so this is a great opportunity to catch up.

I didn't have TCM for quite a few years and I got it last year in time for TCM Summer Under the Stars. However, all my vacation time was spent having my wedding and honeymoon that I worked all through August. We could barely afford the cable let alone a DVR so I missed most of last year's programming. We still don't have a (functioning) DVR but I was able to take some time off during August so I hope to be able to catch a lot more programming this year.

I'll also be contributing two pieces to the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon! One on Steve McQueen and another on Kirk Douglas so watch for those coming up.

You can find the full schedule of stars and films here. See the list below for a recap!

Thursday August 1st – Humphrey Bogart
Friday August 2nd – Doris Day
Saturday August 3rd – Alec Guiness
Sunday August 4th – Mary Boland
Monday August 5th – Charlton Heston
Tuesday August 6th – Joan Fontaine
Wednesday August 7th – Fred MacMurray
Thursday August 8th – Ramon Novarro
Friday August 9th – Steve McQueen
Saturday August 10th – Lana Turner
Sunday August 11th – Henry Fonda
Monday August 12th – Catherine Deneuve
Tuesday August 13th – Mickey Rooney
Wednesday August 14th – Bette Davis
Thursday August 15th – Gregory Peck
Friday August 16th – Ann Blyth
Saturday August 17th – Wallace Beery
Sunday August 18th – Natalie Wood
Monday August 19th – Randolph Scott
Tuesday August 20th – Hattie McDaniel
Wednesday August 21st – William Holden
Thursday August 22nd – Maggie Smith
Friday August 23rd – Elizabeth Taylor
Saturday August 24th – Charles Coburn
Sunday August 25th – Clark Gable
Monday August 26th – Jeanne Crain
Tuesday August 27th - Martin Balsam
Wednesday August 28th – Shirley Jones
Thursday August 29th – Glenda Farrell
Friday August 30th – Kirk Douglas
Saturday August 31st – Rex Harrison

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Interview with Matt Phelan, Author/Illustrator of Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton

Matt Phelan and I at his Bluffton signing - Book Expo America 2013

I had the pleasure of interviewing author/illustrator Matt Phelan about his book Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton. Check out my original review here. You can find Matt Phelan on Twitter as @MattPhelanDraws, on Facebook, on Google+ and on his wonderful blog Planet Ham.

Now on to the questions!

Raquel: Could you tell us a little bit about your interest in Buster Keaton?

Matt: When I was a little kid, my brother and I would watch silent movies on my dad's super 8 projector. We had Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, but my favorites were our two Keaton films: Cops and The General (which required a few reel changes). I still think of those movies with the sound of the projector motor running.

My interest in Keaton really caught fire after Kevin Brownlow's amazing documentary A Hard Act to Follow came out (If anyone can tell me why this hasn't been released on DVD in the states, please do. I'm afraid my VHS copy might disintegrate from use). I became obsessed with Buster and tracked down all the books about him I could find as well as whatever terrible quality prints of his films I could dig up. This was pre-Internet and before Kino released all of his films on VHS, so there was a lot of poking around in used bookstores and libraries.

I was in film school at that time and I quickly realized that not only was Keaton brilliantly funny, he was the best filmmaker of the silent era period.

Raquel: That’s so wonderful that you enjoyed watching Buster Keaton films as a child! Was it your childhood fascination with him that inspired you to write and illustrate Bluffton or was there another motivation?

Matt: My fascination with Buster has always been a constant in my life. However, it wasn't until I read his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick that I started thinking about writing a story about the summers in Bluffton. That was about twenty years ago. I didn't actually figure out that the main character should be a kid from Muskegon until about 7 years ago. Some stories take time (although I hope future stories won't take quite so long).

Raquel: I think it’s really interesting that you decided to tell the story through the eyes of your main character Henry Harrison and not Buster Keaton. How did you come to that decision and how did that effect the final book?

Matt: By making Henry the narrator, the reader has a way into this story. Who are the vaudevillians? What is their world like? Henry knows next to nothing about vaudeville at the beginning of the story and that is a very useful viewpoint. It helped me figure out how to tell the story. I could ask myself, "What would I do if I met Buster Keaton when I was a kid?" And I think by not having Buster be the narrator or main character, I could get a truer portrayal of him in a strange way.

Raquel: How did you want to portray Buster Keaton and how did you approach illustrating him?

Matt: I tried to be as true to him as possible. For instance, although some have argued that his childhood was near abusive (the rough act, the lack of schooling) Buster never saw it that way. So I'm sticking with his viewpoint on that matter. I've watched and read a lot of interviews with him so I was very careful in trying to replicate his speaking manner. That won't register with most readers but it was important to me. To draw him, I watched his movies with a sketchbook in hand. I found his shorts with Roscoe Arbuckle to be very helpful because he's the youngest in those. I also have photos of him as a kid. The real method is to take all of that in and then draw with that knowledge deep inside. Do the work, and then forget about it on a conscious level. My approach to illustration is not unlike an actor's approach to a role.

Raquel: Could you tell us more about those photos you have of Buster Keaton as a kid? Especially that one you found of him smiling!

Matt: The best photos of Buster (at all ages) are in a book called Buster Keaton Remembered by his wife Eleanor Keaton. There are great shots of The Three Keatons and also pictures of young Buster in Bluffton. The photograph that ends the book was something I came across completely by chance while I was on a research trip in Muskegon. I walked into a house that was having an estate sale and asked if they had anything about the Actors' Colony and Buster in particular. The woman was the granddaughter of a man who had run the neighborhood general store and he was friends with the Keatons. She rummaged around in a room and came back with this amazing photo of a smiling Buster with his father, Joe Roberts, Ed Gray and other regulars in front of their clubhouse Cobwebs & Rafters. She sold me the photo for ten dollars.

(Learn more about the photo and Phelan's research by reading his guest post at the Nerdy Book Club)

Raquel: I love that story! What kinds of research did you do on that trip to Muskegon?

Matt: I rented a cottage in Bluffton for a week in 2010. While there, Ron Pesch who is really the authority on the Actors' Colony ( gave me a detailed walking tour of the neighborhood. Ron introduced me to the current owner of the Keaton property (Jingles' Jungle has long since been taken down). He showed me the concrete wall out back where Joe Keaton carved his name years ago. Mostly, I just strolled around, staring at the lake, getting to know the feel of the place. I walked the base line of Buster's ball field and gauged how long it took to get from the Keaton's place to Cobwebs & Rafters and Pascoe's. I played with my daughter on the shore of Lake Michigan where the grand Lake Michigan Park once stood. It's not hard to see the appeal of the place.

Raquel: I think that’s a side of Buster Keaton that a lot of us are not very familiar with. What do you hope kids (and adults too!) get out of reading Bluffton?

Matt: I do hope the book will inspire interest in Buster and his work and spur readers on to check out his films (especially if they've never seen one). I also hope that the themes of friendship and finding one's place in the world resonate with readers. They are universal concerns no matter what the time period or setting.

Raquel: What are you working on now?

Matt: Right now I'm illustrating some picture books (one of which is the first I've also written). After that, I begin work on my next graphic novel which is a retelling of Snow White in 1930s Manhattan. I think I'm just going to keep writing books that require me to watch a lot of classic movies as research.

Raquel: Now, I've got to ask this question. What is your favorite Buster Keaton film?

Matt: Oh, picking a favorite Keaton film is very difficult. If pressed, I might have to go with The General. But I really love The Navigator. And Steamboat Bill, Jr. And his short film One Week is absolutely perfect. Can I just answer All of the Above?

Thank you Matt for taking the time to answer my questions!

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan
240 pages - Hardcover
Candlewick Press
July 2013

Barnes & Noble

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

My Lunches with Orson
Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind
July 2013
Hardcover 9780805097252
Metropolitan Books (MacMillan)

Barnes and Noble

There have been many classic film biographies published in the last decade but none quite like My Lunches with Orson. Within the pages of this book, you'll find transcriptions of conversations between director Henry Jaglom and the man he revered and championed for, Orson Welles. While some other books might attempt to publish interviews and conversations from memory or notes, there is something special about straight transcriptions from recordings. There was some editorial massaging of the Welles recordings due to sound issues and inaudible bits and for the sake of continuity and context. But for the most part these conversations are presented as though you were a fly on the wall listening in on Jaglom and Welles' lunchtime meetings at the restaurant Ma Maison as they talked shop and gossiped.

Jaglom recorded his conversations with Welles not only with his permission but on his request. The agreement made was that the recording device must always be hidden. Out of sight and out of mind, the hidden device recorded a very candid Welles talking about everything including his past career, projects he was eager to work on, people whom he admired and who annoyed him, how others perceived him, his love life and more. I wouldn't call Orson Welles' conversations lurid or salacious. On the contrary, we get a glimpse of a tortured genius, oftentimes paranoid and always opinionated. He felt he had a right to criticize people in the movie business because he was one of them. Jaglom is at times both lavish with his adoration and other times very particular about his questions in order to get Welles to open up about a certain topic. I think Jaglom made Welles feel at ease and because of that we get to read a much more candid Welles. We have to remember though that Welles was also an actor and sometimes these conversations were mini-performances in themselves.

The book starts with an introduction by Peter Biskind who summarizes the careers of Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom and how these conversations came to be and how they came to be transcribed (note that Biskind didn't transcribe them but did some editorializing of them). Part One transcribes the Welles-Jaglom conversations of 1983, Part Two is from 1984-1985. The last conversation recorded happened 5 days before Welles' death in 1985. Each chapter starts off with a choice quote from Orson Welles, often meant to pique the interest or scandalize. You can't help wanting to dive right in with each of those morsels. The backmatter includes an epilogue written by Henry Jaglom along with an appendix containing descriptions of Welles' various unfinished works and biographical summaries of the people whom Welles refers to in the conversations.

A lot of folks I know have already read and reviewed My Lunches with Orson so I don't necessarily bring anything new to the table other than my own opinions. Here are some of my thoughts:

Sometimes looking at the big picture gives us a shallow sense of what a thing really truly is and it's only when we focus in on one small aspect that we get a better understanding. There is a lot to learn about who Orson Welles was as a director, as an actor, as part of the Hollywood elite and as a man. You can't take everything Welles says in the book at face value.

"No, I think I'm absolutely genuine - that's a lie. I never tell the truth." Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom (pg 107)

Have a shaker of salt by your side when you read this book because you'll need it to take grains from. Sometimes things Welles says are his own true opinion and sometimes they are just to get a rise or reaction out of his audience (Jaglom and that hidden recorder). Welles was not afraid to divulge in detail what he liked about someone and what he didn't. Some of his opinions will shock you. His observations are either brutally honest or just plain brutal.

There were some observations that gave me pause and made me really reflect on the subject at hand. For example, Orson Welles did not care for Charlie Chaplin and thought he was an egotist with not much talent. He much preferred Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and even went on to say that he thought The General was one of the best films ever made. I think over the past couple of decades there has been a huge shift in popularity of Keaton and Lloyd films and much more criticism of Chaplin's work. Maybe Welles' observations were ahead of his time? Welles also questioned the talents of favorites including Alfred Hitchcock (he hated Vertigo), Humphrey Bogart (he called him a second-rate actor) and more. He won't win any fans with these opinions however there is something to glean from his observations about the movie industry. Movies are entertainment and for Orson Welles I think movies were his way to express his creativity. Kind of like John Huston, I think Welles may have seen movies as a lesser of the arts but was still compelled to make them.

If anything, this book got me to think a whole lot about my perceptions of the movies. Some things Orson Welles said made stop and think and other times I wanted to throw the book across the room. Especially when Welles said he hated Art Deco!

If you have romanticized notions of old Hollywood and don't want anything to corrupt that pure ideal, then do not read this book. If you have a thicker skin than that, then don't miss out on the opportunity to reading this captivating, eye-opening, bittersweet and oftentimes wildly entertaining book.

Thank you to Metropolitan books for sending me a copy of this book to review!

UPDATE: There has been a lot of talk about My Lunches with Orson. Here are some interesting links for further reading.

My Lunches with Orson Puts You at the Table with Welles via NPR Books
Q&A: Director Henry Jaglom, Author of My Lunches with Orson via NPR Books
The Art of Irascible Conversation, Found in My Lunches with Orson via Biographile
Hollywood Gossip: At Lunch with Orson Welles via The Millions
An excerpt of the book via Vulture
Stardust Memories ‘My Lunches With Orson’ and ‘Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations via The New York Times
War of the Words via The Paris Review
Henry Jaglom's piece from 2008 via L.A. Times

Blogger Reviews

K.C. of Classic Movies
Cliff of Immortal Ephemera
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ Tish (1942)

Tish from Warner Bros.

Where do I begin? How do I even talk about such an odd movie? Oh dear! Well, here goes nothing...

Tish (1942) is an adaptation of the Tish stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Tish Carberry (Marjorie Main) is part of a threesome of spinsters which includes Aggie Pilkington (Zasu Pitts) and Lizzie Wilkins (Aline MacMahon). Together they cause all sorts of ruckus in their small New England town. Tish lives in her childhood home, now owned by her nephew Charlie Sands (Lee Bowman), and her friends live in a nearby boarding house along with the orphaned teenager Cora Edwards (Susan Peters). All three ladies practically raise Cora.

Now let's add some romantic entanglements, shall we? Cora is in love with Charlie who is newly engaged to Kit Bowser (Virginia Grey) whose brother Ted (Richard Quine) is in love with Cora. That's quite a mess, no? Tish tries to meddle in the love lives of the young folks by trying to fix Cora up with Charlie. She takes them on a camping trip together (some hilarious moments ensue) but Cora has a change of heart. Charlie marries Kit in a church ceremony and Cora and Ted secretly elope before Ted is sent off to war.

So far this film is a light comedy about three delightful spinsters in a small New England town and the young people in their lives. The romantic entanglement, more of a circle than a triangle, gets settled but then the story takes a bizarre turn for the worst.


Cora becomes pregnant, finds out Ted is lost at sea, faints, has her baby and dies. Yes, dies. What the heck? Tish finds out about the baby and takes him into her care. But realizes that it might be a bit complicated because the baby is not hers nor did she go through the proper channels to legally adopt him. So Tish tells everyone she had the baby. No one believes her because she's too old to have a baby. She is so adamant that everyone starts to think she's crazy. Charlie reluctantly puts her in a mental institution. Eventually things resolve themselves and there is a happy yet somewhat bittersweet surprise at the end but good grief.


What could have been just a light 1940s comedy turned out to be a rather bizarre curio of the time. I haven't read the Tish stories so I'm not sure how much this film stays true to the original tales.

This film is notable because of Susan Peters and she's the main reason I watched the film. Playing Cora in Tish (1942) was Susan Peters' first substantial role at MGM. Studio heads were impressed with her and she went on to do Random Harvest (1942) and several other films. Peters was being groomed to become a leading lady and a starlet all thanks to the film Tish. Also, Susan Peters met her future husband Richard Quine while making this film. Peters and Quine married the following year, adopted a son and later divorced in 1948. Susan Peters became paralyzed as a result of a hunting accident in 1945, continued to have health problems and died in 1952 (it's a complicated story that I won't go into in this post). Researching the life of Susan Peters is a pet project of mine so it was imperative that I watch Tish (1942).

Susan Peters is really delightful in this film as are the other actors. So if you are a fan of anyone in the cast, Tish is worth at least one viewing. I'd like to also point out that Guy Kibbee has a supporting role as Judge Bowser (father of the characters Kit and Ted). Kibbee has some hilarious scenes and his character is often put in embarrassing situations courtesy of the three spinsters. Note that Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee played a couple in Gold Diggers of 1933 so it's nice to see them together again in Tish!

One last note for vintage hair and fashion enthusiasts. Watch this film for the outfits and hairstyles of Susan Peters and Virginia Grey. You'll get lots of ideas because the wardrobe and hair departments took extra effort grooming these two young ladies for the film.

Tish  (1942) is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Tish (1942) from Warner Archive for review.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan
240 pages - Hardcover
Candlewick Press
July 2013

Barnes & Noble

Maybe I'm a little biased because I work for the publisher but I think this book is fantastic. A couple of years ago I was at a company party while working the big industry show Book Expo America. I'm pretty shy and was trying my best to mingle. I happened to overhear someone talking about Buster Keaton and of course this classic-film-loving gal perked right up. The person talking about Buster Keaton was Matt Phelan, an author/illustrator renowned for his children's book art. He has had much success with his historical middle-grade graphic novels and he was working on one about Buster Keaton. Once anything classic film related comes up in conversation, my introverted nature seems to be suppressed and I jump into the conversation with much enthusiasm. I talked to Matt for what seemed to be hours about Buster Keaton and about his work-in-progress, a graphic novel called Bluffton. And each Book Expo we attended, we chatted more in anticipation of the book's release.

Today Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton goes on sale to the public and I urge you to find a copy and buy it.

Bluffton follows the story of Henry Harrison, a young boy from Muskegon, Michigan. It's the summer of 1908 and a troop of vaudevillians, including a young Buster Keaton, have stopped to spend the season at Bluffton, a small neighborhood by Lake Muskegon. Buster is different from any other kid Henry has ever met. Henry is mesmerized by the vaudevillians, their animals, their props, their antics and their colorful personalities. Vaudeville life is the polar opposite of the seemingly hum-drum life Henry leads in Muskegon. However, Buster doesn't seem to think so. Buster lives the vaudeville life all the time and when he spends his summers in Bluffton he gets to be a regular kid for a while. Buster wants to play baseball, go swimming and fishing and do all the things a normal kid from 1908 would do during the summertime. Henry wants to juggle, do stunts, appear on stage and do everything Buster and the vaudevillians do.

This story has a lot of classic elements that work well. There is what I like to call "the new person dynamic" in which a stranger comes into someone's life and changes it forever. There is also opposites-attract and grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side factors. You learn a lot about both Henry and Buster from how different they are to each other and how they interact.

Matt Phelan does a superb job with the illustrations in the book, taking extra care with Buster Keaton. Keaton was known as the Great Stone Face but you'll see a much more playful and relaxed Keaton here. And in this book, unlike in his movies, he smiles! The graphic novel style of the book lends itself to film aficionados because it reads as though you were watching the actions on film.

Bluffton is intended for children ages 9-12 but I think people of all ages will enjoy this book. It's a great way to introduce children to an important figure in film history and to show them a time before electronic devices in which work and play were exclusively physical. Adults will revel in the nostalgia and the history and everyone will be transfixed by the amazing illustrations. This is a great choice for reluctant readers because of the accessibility of the illustrations, the story and the text.

You can see a free preview below of the book. Also, I'll be posting an interview with Matt Phelan soon on this blog! Stay tuned.

Monday, July 22, 2013

2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: First Roundup

We are past the first month mark so I'm sharing some entries for the 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Everyone can chose to read up to 6 books but if you read a total 6 and review them by September 15th, you are eligible to win a prize. The prize in question is your choice of any single disc movie from the Warner Archive and up to $30 worth of books from Barnes & Noble or your favorite Independent Bookstore (or a gift certificate). The prize can be modified if the winner is from outside the U.S.!

If you haven't read or reviewed a book yet, don't worry. There is still plenty of time. Grab a book and get crackin'.

Here are the reviews!

Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond by Scott Allen Nollen
When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Moviemaking in Utah

Margaret of The Great Katharine Hepburn
Knowing Hepburn and Other Curious Experiences by James Prideaux

Raquel of Out of the Past
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of Musical Film by Richard Barrios

Rich of Wide Screen World
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Sara on Goodreads
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Sebina on Goodreads
Bride of Golden Images by Eve Golden
Pieces of My Heart by Robert J. Wagner

Travis of Cinemalacrum
Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films by Barry Keith Grant

(Editor's Note: If I'm missing your review, let me know in the comment section below and I'll add it above.)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Triple Ben-Hur Extravaganza!

Up until recently I had never seen any film version of Ben-Hur. Last Sunday I watched three in one day! Am I crazy? Maybe a little. But I thrive on challenges especially fun ones like this.

 It all started with the screening of Ben-Hur (1925) at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA. I went with my good friend Kevin.

Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis performed. (Read my previous interview with him here). Before Ben-Hur (1925) was screened, they brought out a projector and showed a rare 16mm print of Ben-Hur (1907). Yes 1907!  A gentleman (I didn't catch his name) came out to introduce the film to us. He made it very clear that he thought the film was silly and gave us permission to laugh. I take film history a bit more seriously and let's just say I wasn't amused.

Ben-Hur (1907) is a 9 minute long one-reeler. How did they get the entire plot of Ben-Hur into a 9 minute film? They didn't. This short film only shows a few key scenes from the story for example the tile falling on the governor and the chariot race. It was filmed on a very small budget and on Coney Island. Jeff Rapsis explained later on that the story of Ben-Hur had been so wildly popular that audiences then already knew the story very well. It's a landmark film because it was the first time filmmakers were sued for copyright infringement. Movies were so new that there wasn't any language in copyright law about adapting copyrighted works into movies. The publisher (Harper) and the estate of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace sued the filmmakers and won. Filmmakers have had to pay for film rights for adaptations ever since!

Not knowing much about the story of Ben-Hur, I was a bit lost watching the 1907 version. I definitely appreciated being able to see a piece of history on the big screen like that!

After Ben-Hur (1907), Jeff Rapsis gave an introduction to Ben-Hur (1925), which was shown on 35mm. Rapsis pointed out that by comparing the 1907 and 1925 versions of Ben-Hur we can see
how rapidly the technology of making movies developed during that time. The 1925 version still stands up well today in terms of cinematography and story telling. The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace was first published in 1880. It became a cultural phenomenon and a best-seller and one of the reasons it was such a hit was because it took a fictional story and placed it in the familiar context of the Bible and story of Jesus Christ. Before the movie adaptations, Ben-Hur was a hit on stage and theater productions of the story were common.

Rapsis also made note that filmmakers very gingerly approached showing Jesus. In the 1925 version, you only see Jesus' hand or in one see his outline at the Last Supper. He didn't mention this but the 1959 version obscures Jesus' face but the 1927 version of The King of Kings does not attempt to obscure Jesus at all. Director William Wyler decided to obscure Jesus' face in the 1959 version. Perhaps he was influenced by the 1925 version that he worked on as a young assistant director?

It took 2 years to make Ben-Hur (1925) and it is considered to be the most expensive silent film ever made. It was shot in black-and-white and in two-strip Technicolor. There are also some tinted scenes. Rapsis mentioned that during that era it was very difficult to shoot movies at night. Nighttime was often shown with a dark blue tint to give the sense that it was late in the evening.

I was quite impressed with the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. It clocks in at around 2-1/2 hours which is about an hour less than the 1959 version but I didn't feel anything was rushed or left out. I very much enjoyed watching Ramon Novarro in the role of Judah Ben-Hur. The audience at the Somerville Theatre was respectful and they only laughed at a couple of the romantic scenes. Jeff Rapsis did a tremendous job playing for 2-1/2 straight hours without stopping.

Later that evening, I decided to watch Ben-Hur (1959) at home. I had a copy of the Blu-Ray which was part of a larger boxed set of Blu-Rays that I own. The quality of the visuals on the Blu-Ray were so stunning. It may not have been fair to watch the 1959 version immediately after watching the previous one because I kept comparing them both to each other. In fact, I enjoyed the 1925 version so much that I kept trying to hold the 1959 to it's standards.

Both films were excellent feats of cinematography especially the chariot race scenes. The 1925 version seemed to be more focused on sharing the entire story of Ben-Hur while the 1959 version cut out several plot points in order to linger more on other ones. I thought the difference between how the two films portrayed Jesus was particularly interesting. As I mentioned before, Jesus' face was obscured in both films and in the 1925 version you only get a hand and one instance of a silhouette and in the 1959 version you see more of Jesus' form. There isn't much time spent on the Passion of Jesus and his crucifixion in the 1925 version but it's explored a lot more thoroughly in the 1959. I always, ALWAYS cry watching depictions of Passion and the Crucifixion. The King of Kings (1927) and (1961) both make me weep and I definitely found myself teary-eyed watching Ben-Hur (1959). Both Ben-Hurs depicted Jesus in slightly different ways but drove home the same essentials of his story. (Editor's note: I'm not religious nor am I pushing any religion here. These are just my observations of the story lines!)

I enjoyed both Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston in their roles as Judah Ben-Hur. I can't pick a favorite out of the two, they both played their roles adeptly.

Watching three Ben-Hurs in one day was tiring but a worthy endeavor. I'm glad I tackled these classics and now have at least two new favorite epic movies!

The 1925 version is on DVD but might not be for sale individually. You can rent it on Netflix and TCM will be showing it on August 8th which is the Summer Under the Stars day for Ramon Novarro. Ben-Hur (1959) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. There is a 4-Disc Collector's Set which has Ben-Hur (1959) which has the 1925 version.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ The Secret Garden (1949)

Dean Stockwell, Margaret O'Brien and Brian Roper in The Secret Garden (1949)
The Secret Garden (1949) is a delightful adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel of the same name. Of the three adaptations I've seen of The Secret Garden, this one is my favorite (although I'm also partial to the 1993 version too). The film is filled with wonderful moody cinematography and has great use of light and shadow. The movie is in black and white but there are three glorious Technicolor sequences which all take place in the secret garden when it's in full bloom.

Mary Lennox (Margaret O'Brien) recently became an orphan while living with her family in India. After her parents death, she's shipped off to England to live with distant relatives. Mary is thrust into this oppressive mansion, with a dower and mysterious uncle, Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall), an even more dower staff and an unknown screaming voice that echoes throughout the hallways. The screams come from Colin Craven (Dean Stockwell), Archibald's son and Mary's cousin. He's been made an invalid from too much coddling and emotional neglect. Colin and Mary are both brats in their own ways and have met their match with each other. Mary befriends both Colin and the neighbor boy Dickon (Brian Roper). Behind the back of gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Reginald Owen), Mary and Dickon break into a secret garden that has been closed up ever since Colin's mother was killed there by a falling tree. The kids revive the garden bringing color (literally and figuratively) and hope back into everyone's lives.

The dark oppressiveness of the mansion is matched by the neighboring moors however these are no match for the vitality of nature (gardens, animals, etc.) and the youthfulness of the children. Whatever is wrong inside that mansion will be made right with the healing powers of nature and youth. I have always thought The Secret Garden is a great stories for kids. The three children in the story prove to be receptive and triumphant as they outsmart the adults. The kids are the heroes and even without the inherent powers that come with adulthood, they are able to change their own worlds. My favorite scene is the one where Mary and Colin have a screaming contest during one of Colin's tantrums. It's hilarious and I think kids would appreciate it! All three child actors do a wonderful job in the film.

Elsa Lanchester has a notable role as the jolly maid Martha and I enjoyed watching Reginald Owen play the gardener. I wonder if Dickon's Raven is played by Jimmy the Raven. I haven't been able to confirm that but if you are interested Terry of A Shroud of Thoughts has a great post about that bird's career in film.

My only complaint is that the film is far too short at only 92 minutes! Some aspects of the story are rushed because of it. If the film were just a bit longer, maybe some more time could have been spent developing some of the characters.

Take a listen to Warner Archive's recent podcast interview with actress Margaret O'Brien.

Secret Garden, The (1949) from Warner Bros.

The Secret Garden (1949) is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive. I highly recommend it especially if you are looking for a good way to introduce kids to old movies.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received The Secret Garden (1949) from Warner Archive for review.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of Musical Film

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film
Second Edition
by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
Paperback 9780195377347

Barnes and Noble

"By inviting us to behold vestiges of our past, these movies allow us to revel, if only momentarily, in a time in which the world appeared less fraught, optimism was an option, and song and dance mattered immensely." - A Song in the Dark, Richard Barrios

I have had many long conversations with Jonas of All Talking! All Dancing! All Singing! about early talkies and I always found myself as the weaker half of the conversation. I really wanted to learn more about films from this era, particularly musicals, and Jonas had recommended a book for me to read so I could be well-informed on the subject.

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios is a comprehensive and thorough examination of the early era of musicals. It focuses specifically on films from 1926-1934 starting with Don Juan (1926) and ending with The Gay Divorcee (1934). The book is well-organized which is crucial for the reader because otherwise we would get lost in the vast sea of information.

The book follows the story of early musical film chronologically however Barrios adeptly groups the films in each chapter into individual themes. This makes the book very readable. Chapter themes include Hollywood Revues [there were several: King of Jazz (1930), Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Show of Shows (1929), Paramount on Parade (1930), etc.], the Mammy theme [The Jazz Singer (1927), etc.], Comedies, the exotic, films that were not quite musicals, etc. There are also chapters on different specific time periods as well as one on The March of Time which is the most interesting chapter of them all. It focuses primarily on early musical failures and why they failed. It ends with The March of Time which is a Hollywood revue that was never finished and thus never released. A lot was already filmed and those musical numbers were chopped up and released in other movies, revues and shorts.

Barrios isn't afraid to share his opinions or judgements. It is necessary to know this going into reading the book because otherwise it might come as an unwelcome shock. It does add something extra to the text which could have been quite dull without Barrios' voice shining through. Although, I have to admit it took some getting used to. I almost set the book aside to pick up something else until I got 170 pages in and found my stride. I'm so glad I stuck with the book because boy did I learn a lot!

A special thank you goes out to author Richard Barrios for writing this about Ruby Keeler, a performer who I think is very misunderstood by modern audiences:

This particular performer needs her context, for Keeler will strike many as across-the-board incompetent.... As her primary identity apart from Jolson was as a tap dancer, viewers may be surprised by the flailing arms, leaden footwork, and the fact that the top of her head is more visible than her face; she's staring down at those feet to make sure they do her bidding. [Her heavy-footed technique, which seems absurd to those accustomed to Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller, is part of an older dancing tradition. The shoes had wood soles, not metal taps, and produced more sound the harder they were banged down.] 
Barrios explained this so perfectly! So for those of you who make fun of Ruby Keeler, you can go stuff it.

It does help if you are familiar with early musical films. Make sure you watch some early classics like The Jazz Singer (1927)  an early revue like Hollywood Revue of 1929, Gold Diggers of 1933, Sunnyside Up (1929), Madam Satan (1930), The Broadway Melody (1929), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), etc. When I read the book, I already had some familiarity with early musicals but when I did come across an unfamiliar film that was talked about extensively, I took the time to watch a clip online. YouTube has lots of the musical numbers (and oftentimes entire films) available to watch at any time. I recommend Jonas's YouTube channel which has quite a number of early musical gems.

A Song in the Dark is an essential guide for anyone with a keen interest in film history and musicals. I highly recommend it. Thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me this book for review!

Below are a few of my favorite early musical numbers:

Monday, July 8, 2013

To Sir, With Love (1967)


To Sir, With Love (1967) is one of several movies in the good-teacher-vs-tough-students sub-genre. It stars Sidney Poitier as the well-intentioned Mr. Thackeray who winds up at a school in a rough part of London.  Only 12 years earlier, Poitier had a supporting role as a tough student giving Glenn Ford a hard time in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Now the roles have been reversed and it is time for Poitier to contend with a bunch of young hoodlums raring to get out into the real world.

As a contemporary viewer who already has many of these types of films available to them, why should we watch To Sir, With Love (1967)? The main reason is Mr. Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) himself. His demeanor, his race, his modest sophistication and worldliness sets him apart from the poorly educated ruffians who populate his classroom. You feel sorry for him. He's got a tough job on his hands and he's only really there because he hasn't been able to find an engineering position. He has no teaching experience, everyone is expecting him to bail at any second and the rules state that all teachers must avoid corporal punishment at all costs. However, while watching this I got the sense that out of anyone Mr. Thackeray was well suited to tackle this problematic situation. Not just because that's how the story is supposed to go but because of his qualities as a person. However, you feel bad for his students too. They are disadvantaged youth and don't have bright futures ahead of them. Mr. Thackeray, or Sir as they call him, is a beacon of hope for them if they'd only open their eyes.

The story has a lot of heart and is a bit sentimental but never really cloying. Romance is part of the plot with both a young female student and a fellow teacher having the hots for Mr. Thackeray. And let's face it, the viewer has a crush on Thackeray/Poitier too. I know I did!

While watching this you also get to experience a young hip 1960s London. The music, dance, fashion and culture; it's all there. The cinematography isn't all that notable except for the fantastic intro and the scene in which the students go on a field trip to an art museum. I could watch both the intro and the museum scene over and over again, that is how cool they are!

All the students in the film are played by young British actors. The theme song, which shares the same title as the movie, is sung by 1960s British pop star Lulu who also plays one of the students. The song is a recurring theme throughout the film and is performed by Lulu in the movie as well.

To Sir, With Love is not a perfect movie but it is an enjoyable one. I was confused by the scene in which someone is burning an object in the classroom. After some research, I read it was a sanitary napkin. Mr. Thackeray is infuriated, kicks the boys out of the classroom and yells at the girls about their "sluttish" behavior. Sluttish here means female slovenliness and not promiscuousness. This scene will definitely confuse modern audiences without context.

As a side note, Lulu attended the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival and performed this song at the Vanity Fair party and at a showing of this film. I unfortunately missed both of these performances while attending other things, so when I got home from the festival I immediately put this film on my Netflix queue so I could watch it. From what I hear, her performances at the festival were wonderful and now having seen the film I'm really sad I missed them.

Fans of Brit-Coms will be happy to see Patricia Routledge who plays the supporting role of a concerned teacher who gives advice to Mr. Thackeray. Routledge is most known for her role as Mrs. Bucket (it's Bou-quet!) on Keeping Up Appearances.

To Sir, With Love (1967) is on DVD with limited availability. It will definitely be part of my next movie purchase because I want to snap this one up before it goes out of print.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge ~ Share Your Reading List

Did you sign up for my 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge? There is still time to sign up to participate! The deadline is July 15th to sign up for the challenge. All you have to do is fill out my form and review up to 6 classic film books on your blog or Goodreads profile.

For those of you participating, what six books do you plan to read? Even if you don't want to read six books by the September 15th deadline, just share which six classic film books are on your to-be-read list. You can share your list by creating a blog post or a Goodreads bookshelf. Send me your link via email or in the comment section below and I'll link to it on this post.

Reading Lists:

Here are my books:

(Currently Reading)

Edited by Peter Biskind

by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham

by Dorothy Baker
(was adapted into the movie Young Man With a Horn (1950) starring 
Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day

by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

Hey, I'm curious okay!

by James Kotsilibas-Davis and Myrna Loy

This one is my bonus title in case I abandon one of the above books 
or have time to sneak another read in.

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