Friday, August 26, 2016

2016 Summer Reading Challenge - Second Round-Up

I'm so proud of all of you for getting your read on this summer! There have been lots of great reviews and I'm impressed how participants are deviating from traditional bios and trying out some interesting books. Memoirs, self-help books, novels and more. Kudos to Danny of for his dedication to Barbara Stanwyck!

A friendly reminder, if you're a summer reading participant please make sure you submit links to me. If you don't want to win the final prize just let me know. I still need the links however!

Here is the second set of classic film book reviews. You can find the first review round-up here.

Danny of
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
Showmen, Sell It Hot! Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood by John McElwee
Stanwyck: The Untold Biography by Jane Ellen Wayne
Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith
Warren William:Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood by John Stangeland 

Erin of Always Classic

The Hustler by Walter Tevis

Grezilda of Doesn't She Ramble
The Group by Mary McCarthy

Java of Java's Journey
Elizabeth Taylor Takes Off by Elizabeth Taylor
The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven
Searching for My Father, Tyrone Power by Romina Power
Walt Disney's Peter Pan

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film
Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira

Lindsey of The Motion Pictures
The Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant by Jennifer Grant
LIFE Goes to the Movies 
The Real James Dean edited by Peter L. Winkler

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes
The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair

Raquel of Out of the Past
Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira
The Dawn of Technicolor by David Pierce and James Layton

Rich of Wide Screen World
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg

The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons by Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan

If I missed your review, send me a link via the Google form, e-mail or on social!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Song of Russia (1944)

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)
Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)

1944 was a good year for actress Susan Peters. She was nominated the previous year for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Random Harvest (1942) and MGM was grooming her for stardom. They were giving her more substantial parts including roles in Assignment in Brittany (1943), Young Ideas (1943) and the pro-Soviet Union propaganda film Song of Russia (1944). Tragedy would strike New Year's Day 1945 when a hunting accident left her paralyzed.

Song of Russia (1944) showcased Susan Peters at her best. Peters had a sort of lingering melancholy and her eyes glistened as though she were always seconds away from crying, whether from joy, pride or sorrow. The leading role of Nadya, opposite star Robert Taylor, was perfectly suited to her because it allowed her to play herself but with a fake Russian accent.

American conductor John Meredith (Robert Taylor) heads to Russia with his manager Hank Higgins (Robert Benchley) for a nationwide tour conducting the music of Tchaikovsky. Nadja, a talented pianist, is desperate to get John's attention. She and all of the musical prodigies that inhabit her small Russian village of Tschaikowskoye want John Meredith to conduct at their humble music festival. Nadja wins him over and they soon fall in love. But their happiness is short-lived as Russia is on the brink of war with the Nazis. Will Nadja and John's love for their home countries get in the way of their love for each other?

"We have serious differences. Socially, culturally. We cannot even discuss them." - Nadja
"We'll discuss them tomorrow. The day after." - John

Song of Russia was a WWII propaganda film to help strengthen the bond between the US and it's ally Russia as they joined forces to defeat the Nazis. This was last film Robert Taylor made before he joined the Navy. Years later during the HUAC hearings, the conservative and anti-Communist Taylor suggested he was blackmailed into making this film. His reluctance to star in it met with pressure from MGM and supposedly he was told if he didn't make the film there would a delay in him getting into the Navy. Taylor named names to the HUAC but didn't go so far as to say outright that he was blackmailed. Not only did MGM deny the claim made by Taylor, they also refused to admit that Song of Russia was a propaganda film.

“It is true, of course, that Russia was our ally in 1943, and that our government was very friendly to the Soviets. But that was not why Song of Russia was made.” – Louis B. Mayer

Despite what Mayer said, no one who watches this film will see it as anything but a pro-Russia movie. It was directed by a Russian, Gregory Ratoff, and although it was filmed on the MGM lot in Culver City travelogue and documentary scenes of actual Russia are woven into the film to make audiences feel like they were there. We go on a tour of Moscow and we see real war footage. Nadja orders John a traditional Russian meal at a fancy restaurant. In order to get as many Russian terms into the scenes as possible, she goes a bit overboard and requests Borscht, beef stroganoff, zakuski, pirog and other Russian dishes. Tchaikovsky's music is the soundtrack of the movie making it a quasi-musical. Robert Taylor's John Meredith is ignorant of Russian culture so as he learns about Nadja's country the audience learns as well.

Susan Peters, Robert Taylor and Russia are the stars of this film but it's important to note some of the smaller performances by other well-known actors. Child actor Darryl Hickman plays Nadya's nephew and the script gives him some substantial scenes. Robert Benchley is under-utilized as Taylor's publicist and manager. Jacqueline White has a small and sorry role as a young resident of Tschaikowskoye. John Hodiak, Joan Loring and Tamara Shayne also appear in the movie.

I was impressed with Susan Peters' performance in this film. She aptly plays the piano (no body double or camera tricks were used) and she even does some traditional Russian dancing. She's a good match for Robert Taylor and holds her own in the picture.

Song of Russia is a WWII curio that has its place in movie history. It's a must-see for history buffs. For all it's pro-Russian sentiment, in the end audiences came away from it with one final message: America is the greatest nation of them all. Once you see the film you'll know what I mean. Whether you agree with this message or not, it was a fundamental principle that drove 1940s Hollywood.

Song of Russia (1944) is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.
When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

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

TCM article on Song of Russia

Film Producer Denies Song of Russia Red

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935

The Dawn of Technicolor book

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935
by James Layton and David Pierce
448 pages - 9780935398281
February 2015
George Eastman House
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Technicolor wasn't just a technology. It was a vision, a company, an aesthetic and a movement. Film scholars James Layton and David Pierce gave themselves the monumental task of detailing the early and complicated history of Technicolor. The end result was the book The Dawn of Technicolor published by George Eastman House (now known as the George Eastman Museum). The focus of this book iss the formative time between 1915 and 1935 when the film industry was still growing and changing and when the forces behind Technicolor defied all odds to bring color to the movies.

"In enduring these twenty challenging years, Technicolor solidified its position as a market leader in Hollywood and perfected its technology to set the standard for the industry." - Layton and Pierce

It's important to note that this book does not seek out to tell the history of Technicolor movies. Rather it seeks to tell the story of how Technicolor as a technology was invented, implemented and how it eventually became an industry standard.

"Motion pictures are an art form enabled by technology." - Layton and Pierce

The level of technical detail in this book can be overwhelming. It is not a light read but one that is worth the time of any serious film student or budding scholar. Layton and Pierce thoughtfully lay out the history of the company that started Kalmus, Comstock and Westcott, Inc. in Boston, grew into Technicolor which expanded over the years and eventually made it's permanent move to Hollywood. There is much detail about the important figures in the company, many of whom were engineers from MIT. Biographical inserts go into detail about the life and careers of these figures.

Herbert T. Kalmus and company worked tirelessly to make Technicolor a functional and desirable part of making movies. They worked at a financial loss for many years.  Studios resisted Technicolor in those early years because of cost, availability of equipment and potential for failure. It was difficult for the engineers at Technicolor to ensure consistent quality when creating prints. Color film required more attention and money than a black-and-white film. According to the authors, "the film companies were vertically integrated operations, and they wanted to control as many aspects of their business as possible." 

Making Technicolor work required tenacity, constant tinkering and perfecting of the technology and a strong belief that there was a future in color films. The industry's transition to sound also resulted in a boom for color movies. As you read the book you learn about the ups and downs, the business and technological difficulties with Technicolor as well as it's eventual transition from the two colors of red and green to a three color process.

The Dawn of Technicolor book
Interior spread of The Dawn of Technicolor. Note the green and red tinted pages and custom bookmark.

The Dawn of Technicolor is a scholarly work formatted as a coffee table book. This proved to be a challenge for this read. The text is rich with detail and there were not enough visuals for it to be the type of book that you can just flip through. It took me several hours to read this book and I carried it with me everywhere. It weighs a great deal, is very cumbersome to hold and it was inevitable that the spine would break from the strain. If I were the publisher of the book, I would have gone with a smaller format, still large enough to showcase the gorgeous visuals but small enough that one could spend hours reading it comfortably.

The book has over 400 glossy pages, red and green tinted pages to mimic 2-strip Technicolor and extensive backmatter. After the main body of text, there is an annotated filmography which is worth the price of the book alone. It is over 100 pages long and includes extensive detail on every single early Technicolor film ever made. Not only does it list basic information like title, director, studio, cast, synopsis, release date but also has information on the Technicolor elements, whether they exist, notes about the release and reception as well as the current status of archival holdings. Films in this filmography include all color silents and talkies, feature films with color inserts, shorts, animations and abandoned films like The March of Time (1930). It boggles my mind how much work must have gone into collecting all this information and laying it all out. It's worth going through these and learning about the different films. There is no information about home video release in this filmography.

The films discussed in the book start with The Gulf Between (1917) and end with Becky Sharp (1935). Other films discussed at length include:

Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), The Toll of the Sea (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), Seven Chances (1925), The Black Pirate (1925), The American Venus (1926), The Mysterious Island (1928), The Viking (1928), Redskin (1928), On with the Show (1929), Rio Rita (1929), Sally (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), King of Jazz (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Mamba (1930),  Whoopee! (1930), Doctor X (1932) and more.

A heads up to my fellow Boston area classic film enthusiasts, there is a lot of detail in the book about Technicolor's origins in Boston. Our city was a hub of scientific innovation and it's interesting to see how a city so far away from Hollywood could have such an impact on the film industry.

Painstakingly researched, The Dawn of Technicolor is the definitive book on the history of this technology.  There is no resource anywhere that will have the level of detail and the volume of information on early Technicolor. It sets the standard for future scholarly works. This book comes highly recommend and is a must for your film studies library.

Now I leave you with a new-to-me discovery, the Fashion News color shorts of the late 1920s. I had never heard of these until I read the filmography in The Dawn of Technicolor. I found one from 1928 on YouTube. Enjoy!

This is my third review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. I purchased a copy of The Dawn of Technicolor at Cinefest in 2015 and got it autographed by both authors.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Capitolfest 2016

Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY
Capitol Theatre - Rome, NY
Last week we packed up the car and traveled 300 miles to Rome, NY for Capitolfest #14. This journey was filled with ups and downs but the end goal was always to watch rare movies from the 1920s and 1930s on the big screen with my fellow classic film enthusiasts. We marveled at the newly restored King of Jazz, scratched our heads in confusion as we tried to make sense of Just Imagine and marveled at Capitolfest’s star Gary Cooper whose smoldering good looks and on screen charm was only enhanced by his youth.

Capitolfest is a film festival that is hosted every August in Rome, NY at the historic Capitol Theatre. Each festival highlights one star with alternating years featuring an actress or an actor. This year’s highlight was Gary Cooper and out of the 14 feature films he was the star of 5 of them in addition to shorts and a film fragment.

The festival is three days but I was only able to attend the first two days before heading back home. In addition to the festival films, there were also several screenings of the King of Jazz (1930) in the smaller theatre next door. I took advantage of the opportunity to see a polished up version of this odd yet hypnotizing musical revue.

There are plenty of perks that come with attending Capitolfest. You're welcomed with a badge and a printed festival guide complete with a schedule and very thorough notes on each film. The majority of the movies were shown in 35mm, much preferred over digital by many. It doesn't make much difference to me but it made the world of difference to many of the attendees. Prints of the various films shown were provided Universal Pictures, UCLA Film & Television Archive, MoMA, The Library of Congress, private collectors and other sources. There were intermissions and extended lunch and dinner breaks. This made long festival days much more manageable. The dealer's room was stocked with goodies and festival goers often stepped away from the festival to shop for some gems and enjoy the air conditioning. There was a mixer, a barbeque, lots of snacks at the concession stand and friendly staff members ready to answer any question. And if you were lucky you caught a glimpse of Kallie hanging out in the Capitol Theatre window.

Kallie the Capitol Theatre cat
Kallie the Capitol Theatre cat

Smaller Capitol Theatre screening room

Films at Capitolfest 14 included:

Features – Doomsday (1928), Linda (1929), Dude Ranch (1930), Children of Divorce (1927), Just Imagine (1930), The Texan (1930), Eleven PM (1926), The Poor Rich (1934), Dressed to Kill (1928), Up for Murder (1931), Too Much Harmony (1933), While New York Sleeps (1920), A Man from Wyoming (1930), Wolf Song (1929)
Presentations – George Willeman Presentation on the Edison Kinetoscope and The Dawn of Technicolor: Talkies
Kinetoscope shorts – The Old Guard (1913), The Edison Kinetoscope (1913), The Five Bachelors (1913), The Edison Minsters (1913), The Deaf Mute (1913), The Musical Blacksmiths, Nursery Favorites (1913), Jack's Joke (1913)
Shorts – Lightnin’ Wins (1926), Hit and Run (1935), Under the Daisies (1913), Me and the Boys (1929), Jack Theakston's Short Subject Follies (including a video of Joseph Breen discussing code enforcement)
Cartoons – Merry Mannequins (1936), A Boy and His Dog (1936)
Fragments – Arizona Bound (1927)

Here are some of my thoughts on some of the films I saw:

Linda (1929) – This was my favorite film of the festival. Directed by a woman (Dorothy Davenport, billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid), based on a novel written by a woman, starring a woman Helen Foster in the lead role of Linda and features a strong female character and a good role for the prolific actress Bess Flowers. This film has a nice twist to the married-the-wrong-guy story line and Linda can easily be seen as a feminist heroine. There was subtle hint that Flowers’ character Annette Whittmore is in love with Linda. This theme of suggested same sex relationships showed up in a few of the films at the festival.
King of Jazz (1930) - Out of all the festival films this was the only one I was familiar with. The restoration of this dazzling red, green and silver showcase of musical talent was sight to see. It's an assault of two-strip Technicolor on your eyes. So much so that you'll want to bury your face in some yellows, purples and blues. It's worth it though, especially for the wonderful the Rhapsody in Blue number which tries so hard to be blue but winds up more of a turquoise green.
Lightnin’ Wins (1926) - A short featuring Lightnin' the dog, a canine star of the silent and early talkie era. Features a young Gary Cooper who gets beat up over and over in the movie. It's a fun little movie.
Children of Divorce (1927) - Many were excited for this film but were left disappointed. I wasn't one of them. I quite enjoyed this dramatic silent picture about two girls, growing up as children of divorce whose bond follows them into adulthood. Starring Clara Bow and Esther Ralston as the best friends who are practically a couple themselves, they eventually fall for men, Gary Cooper and Einar Hanson. Bow meddles a bit too much in everyone's lives and things spiral out of control. The story plays with gender roles and even features a tender moment between Cooper and Hanson. It's a Jazz Age morality tale but with a bit of something something that will keep contemporary viewers interested.
Just Imagine (1930) - An El Brendel film from 1930 depicting what life would be like in 50 years time. I was born in 1980, I love retrofuturism so it was a must for me to see what Pre-Code Hollywood thought of my birth year. Man what a doozy. This one was a WTF film if I ever saw one. Everyone has numbers instead of names, people travel in flying cars, couples assigned marriage partners by a court of law which they can appeal, a dead El Brendel is frozen from 1930 and revived in 1980 and there is a trip to Mars. Female leads include Margaret O'Sullivan and Marjorie White.  Actors John Garrick and Frank Albertson have a strong bromance and El Brendel gets a Martian boyfriend. Fun moment during the screening, the Captiol Theatre's resident bat came out to enjoy the film.
Eleven PM (1926) - This film added some diversity to the line up. Directed by and starring Richard Maurice and featured a mostly black cast. It was an odd story and a bit difficult to follow especially after lunch when drowsiness starts to set in. This rare film was recently released as part of Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
The Edison Kinetoscope Presentation & shorts – George Willeman of the Library of Congress was on hand for this very special presentation. Willeman discussed the origins of the Edison Kinetoscope, the history of the shorts made and the story of how they were restored digitally synching the visuals and audio. Over the three days, Capitolfest attendees got to see several digital presentations of these shorts. Some of these films haven't been seen by the public in over 100 years.
The Dawn of Technicolor Presentation - James Layton, half of the team behind The Dawn of Technicolor book (I'll be reviewing this one shortly) and the Cinefest and TCM Classic Film Festival presentations, was on hand to discuss Technicolor talkies. The presentation included information about the history of Technicolor, clips from two-strip Technicolor musicals and more. Even though I was familiar with the book and had seen a version of this presentation at Cinefest last year, it was still a delight.
The Poor Rich (1934) - Take a bunch of beloved character actors and comedians put them in a crumbling mansion and what do you get? A hilarious Pre-Code treat. Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Thelma Todd, Leila Hyams, Una O'Connor, Grant Mitchell and Andy Devine star and there are small performances by E.E. Clive, Ward Bond and others. Funny plot, great cast made this film such a delight.
Up for Murder (1931) - A 1930s feast for the eyes! Worth the price of admission alone to see Genevieve Tobin's glorious Art Deco apartment. A baby-faced Lew Ayres stars as an up-and-coming professional at a city newspaper. He falls in love with society columnist Tobin who is having an affair with the boss Purnell Pratt. They could only get away with the film's ending in Pre-Code Hollywood. Had it been made three years later the ending would have been very different. Beloved character actor Frank McHugh has a small role as Ayres' perpetually drunk best friend and coworker.

The Dawn of Technicolor - The March of Time (1930)
The Dawn of Technicolor Presentation

My experience at Captiolfest had its ups and downs. The pain from sitting in uncomfortable seats soured my long weekend (being trapped in a car for hours before and after didn't help either). Would I recommend it to fellow filmgoers? Yes but with one caveat: you must have a love early cinema and have the patience for oddities. Here are what I think were the pros and cons of Capitolfest:

A chance to see rare films
A community of early film enthusiasts
An appreciation of 35mm over digital
An air-conditioned dealer’s room packed with movies, books, memorabilia
Lots of breaks ranging from 15 minutes to 2 hours
Nearby health food store and cafe Brenda’s was a wonderful lunch and snack spot
Coffee and tea available at the concession stand to keep you caffeinated
Two amazing presentations: Kinetophone and Technicolor
Mixer with free snacks and cash bar the day before the festival
Historic theatre with a lot of the original features in tact.
Plenty of free parking
No standing in line, plenty of seats. You're guaranteed a chance to see every film.
Watching Kallie the cat in the Capitol Theatre window

Uncomfortable seats with scratchy upholstery and very little leg room. I was in pain for several days.
August isn’t ideal. The humidity and heat was overwhelming. The theatre is too large to air condition. (Added to note that the Capitol Theatre was indeed air conditioned.)
Little to no introduction to the films. You had to read the liner notes in the booklet.
I kept comparing it to Cinefest.

Original Capitol Theatre seat in balcony with wire rim for holding a hat.
They kept a few of these originals for prosperity.

One of the main draws for me was seeing familiar faces from the TCM Classic Film Festival at a venue that was a lot closer to home. I got to hang out with Aurora, Alan, Anne-Marie, Colleen, Nora, Jeff, Jocelyn, Beth Ann and many more. Below is a family photo of some of us courtesy of Aurora of Citizen Screen.

Capitolfest Family Photo - via Aurora

Capitolfest 15 will be held August 11-13, 2017 in Rome, NY and the featured star will be Fay Wray.

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