Friday, September 29, 2017

Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life (1928)

1928 is one of the most fascinating years in film history. Hollywood was in a state of transition, quickly trying to learn how to match visuals with sounds to deliver talking pictures to an eager public. The industry had already mastered the silent film making process and were churning out good quality movies. Many projects in the works were put on hold until talkie versions could be created. Other completed works were retrofitted with talking and singing sequences and synchronized sound to create part-talkies. Beggars of Life (1928) was one of those movies.

With all the other studios racing to create talkies, Paramount presented their first ever contribution with Beggars of Life. Synchronized sound of music, gun shots, moving trains, etc. added to the silent picture. A singing sequence filmed with Wallace Beery was added to the movie after it was completed. The retrofitted scene was used to market the movie. Advertisements proclaimed "come hear Wallace Beery sing!"

Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life (1928)
Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life (1928)

 "Even them people in feather beds ain't satisfied -- we're all beggars of life." - Jim, as played by Richard Arlen

Inspired by the popular memoir by Jim Tully, Beggars of Life follows the story of Jim and Nancy, two hoboes on the move. Nancy (Louise Brooks) is an orphan who killed her adoptive father when he tried to rape her. She encounters hobo Jim (Richard Arlen) and the two set off. They don't intend to stick together. It's only when Jim learns that Nancy is wanted for murder and there's a $1,000 reward for her capture that he feels protective of Nancy. They plan to train hop their way to Alberta, Canada to escape the police and find a better life for themselves. On the road, they meet a band of hoboes and Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), a booze-loving member of the crew who takes a particular interest in Nancy who is dressed like a man but later revealed to the others to be a woman. With the cops on their tail, Nancy, Jim, Oklahoma Red and the rest of the hoboes set off on a train-hopping adventure complete with a spectacular crash.

Beggars of Life was directed by William Wellman for the then Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation. Wellman once called the film " the best silent picture I ever made." Beggars of Life was considered lost until Kevin Brownlow discovered 16mm print in London during the 1960s. The original soundtrack for the film is still considered lost so while we see Wallace Beery singing and title cards with lyrics help us out, we can't hear him.

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life (1928)
Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life displays the sophistication of silent filmmaking that was possible in that era. The quality would significantly change while studios were getting over the learning curve of making talking pictures. Beggars of Life teamed up Louise Brooks and Wallace Beery for a second time. They appeared in the 1927 film Now We're In the Air. Louise Brooks was reaching the peak of her fame and sports her trademark Lulu haircut in the film. I enjoyed her performance and that of Richard Arlen who plays her love interest Jim, based on the real life Jim Tully. The film suffers from some antiquated notions especially with Edgar Washington's stereotyped African-American character. This sort of thing is unfortunately part and parcel with movies of the era. Real life hoboes were hired to play themselves in the film and overall the film is given a very gritty realistic feel even with the glossiness of it's high production value.

Kino Lorber recently released the DVD and Blu-Ray as part of their line of Kino Classics. Their home video releaseis a digital reproduction of George Eastman Museum's 35mm restoration. The preservation was funded by The Film Foundation and the DVD and Blu-Ray release features a new score by The MontAlto Motion Picture Orchestra. The Blu-Ray includes audio commentary by William Wellman Jr. and Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society. The Blu-Ray edition is of spectacular quality. I can only imagine what we have access to now looks even better than what was screened in 1928.

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me this movie to review!

Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel by William Wellman Jr.
Beggars of Life Huffington Post article by Thomas Gladysz
Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hotel (1967)

Hotel (1967)

"I'm an old-fashioned innkeeper. I take care of my employees and they take care of my guests. That's the way I want it to be. I don't want it to change." - Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent

Hotel (1967) follows the story of the fictitious New Orleans hotel the St. Gregory. Pete McDermott (Rod Taylor) is at the heart of the business. As the hotel manager he oversees all staff, attends to any urgent needs of the hotel guests and conducts business with the owner Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas). Although the St. Gregory is the destination for many illustrious guests, it's in serious financial trouble. Pete convinces Mr. Trent to entertain an offer by wealthy hotelier Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy). However, O'Keefe threatens to transform the place into a cold moneymaker rather than an inviting hotel with hospitality as it's main focus. O'Keefe brings with him his girl of the moment, a young Parisian beauty Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak). Jeanne is tired of O'Keefe and soon falls for the charming hotel manager. O'Keefe uses Jeanne and his co-horts to try to seal the deal for the hotel while Pete and Mr. Trent quickly try to find another buyer.

Rod Taylor as Pete McDermott in Hotel (1967)
Rod Taylor as Pete McDermott

Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent in Hotel (1967)
Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent in Hotel (1967)

Kevin McCarthy as Curtis O'Keefe in Hotel (1967)
Kevin McCarthy as Curtis O'Keefe

Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort
Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort

Then there are the hotel guests who prove to be an interesting bunch of characters, each with their own agenda. Merle Oberon plays Duchess Caroline whose husband Duke Geoffrey (Michael Rennie) killed a child in a drunken hit-and-run accident. The Duchess tries to cover it up but the hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte) is on to them and tries to extort them. Then there is Karl Malden as Keycase Milne, the resident hotel thief with an impressive collection of room keys. He has his eye on the Duke and Duchess's room and the possible treasures inside. When a black couple book a stay at the hotel and Pete is not around, the hotel turns them away causing a scandal that's splashed across the newspapers. A business deal gone sour, an extortion, theft, a civil rights dilemma, a forbidden romance and an elevator on the fritz, everything comes to a crashing climax. The ending is one that I didn't expect but one that left me immensely satisfied and feeling good about the story's overall message: stay true to yourself.

Michael Rennie and Merle Oberon as the Duke and Duchess
Michael Rennie and Merle Oberon as the Duke and Duchess

Karl Malden as Keycase Milne
Richard Conte as Detective Dupere in Hotel (1967)
Richard Conte as Detective Dupere

Hotel (1967) is a gratifying film to watch on a rainy day. If you don't have any high expectations you'll be pleasantly surprised. It has it's flaws. It's terribly old-fashioned but that's what I liked about it. Taylor and Spaak lacked chemistry and Spaak quite one note to me. Another actresses would have livened up the film. I found everyone to be delightful to watch including Taylor, Melvyn Douglas, Karl Malden, Richard Conte and even Merle Oberon who I don't particularly care for. Jazz singer Carmen MacRae has a small role as the hotel lounge singer. Clinton Sundberg, a regular in 1940s collegiate movies, plays hotelier O'Keefe's personal assistant.

One could see Hotel (1967) as the 1960s answer to Grand Hotel (1932). The film was directed by Richard Quine, someone I have a keen interest in. Some exteriors and interiors were shot in New Orleans most notably in the French Quarter and in the New Orleans International Airport. Everything else was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. Gowns were designed by Edith Head and Merle Oberon wore her own jewelry including a piece that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. The story was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian writer Arthur Hailey. He's also known for his novel Airport which was adapted in 1970 and spawned a series and a spoof. Hotel became a TV series in the 1980s starring Anne Baxter and James Brolin.

I enjoyed Hotel (1967) for it's motley cast of characters, interesting plot lines and for that glorious ending. It also serves as a time capsule of the goings on of a 1960s era hotel. The movie makes me long for a time when morals and personal truths trump greed. I'm drawn to movies about workplaces and this one did not disappoint.

Hotel (1967) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection. You can purchase the DVD from the WB Shop.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Hotel (1967) to review!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches (2016)

Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches

"He's a man's man. He's a woman's man. He's an ideal man." - Angela Lansbury

Australian actor Rod Taylor burst upon the Hollywood scene in the late 1950s but it wasn't until his seminal film The Time Machine came out in 1960 that he became a major movie star.  Good looks coupled with a talent for comedy and drama, Taylor was a force to be reckoned with. He had an artistic soul beneath a rugged Aussie exterior. He was a born adventurer and up for anything. Taylor did his own stunts, was an expert at accents and had a charisma that translated well on screen. As one of the top leading men of the 1960s, Taylor paved the way for Australian movie stars to come.

Born in a suburb of Sydney, Rod Taylor was raised by a very Aussie father and a very British mother who both had a profound influence on his creative pursuits. At a young age he pursued drawing, painting and pottery as his artistic trade. It wasn't until he heard a radio program that he realized he could be an actor. He worked on radio and on some movies in his homeland and was quickly scooped up by American filmmakers and lured to Hollywood. His early work consisted of small parts in big pictures. He worked alongside many greats including Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Bette Davis and more. When The Time Machine came out in 1960, Taylor was already dabbling in TV work with his series Hong Kong. Both made an impact on audiences and Taylor's life as a major movie star began. He continued to work throughout the 1960s and 1970s in some great parts with some of the best in the business. Even parts he didn't particularly care for helped him in one way or another. Taylor was driven by the love of his art, his adventurous spirit and as he liked to say "a bit of ego thrown in."

Rod Taylor

Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches, a new documentary by Robert de Young and Stephan Wellink, sets out to not only to tell the story of Taylor's acting career but to capture the essence of the man. Told through interviews, photographs and movie clips, we see the span of his work and talent. It benefits from having the man himself, Rod Taylor, as the main interview subject. The filmmakers interviewed him over two days at Taylor's home in Beverly Hills. Taylor passed away in early 2015 making this documentary a timely treasure. (We even get to hear a bit about Taylor's former love interest Anita Ekberg who passed away only a few days after he did.) Several other talking heads in the documentary, all of whom were important figures in Taylor's life, include Angela Lansbury, Tippi Hedren, Maggie Smith, Baz Luhrmann, Stephan Elliott, screenwriter Peter Yeldham, Susie Porter, Keitch Michell and others like Taylor's biographer, manager, lawyer, etc.

Films discussed at length include: The Catered Affair (1956), Raintree Country (1957), The Time Machine (1960), Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960), 101 Dalmations (1961), Seven Seas to Calais (1962), The Birds (1963), The V.I.P.s (1963), Sunday in New York (1963), The Liquidator (1965), Young Cassidy (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Dark of the Sun (1968), The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1970), The Train Robbers (1973), Welcome to Woop Woop (1997) and his final film Inglorious Basterds (2009). You'll hear Rod Taylor himself tell you stories about working on each of these. Taylor seemed to be a fun-loving guy who really enjoyed his work and looked back fondly on his career. He was a colorful character and that definitely shows through.

Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches reinvigorated my interest in Rod Taylor. I was instantly hooked. Taylor was an immensely captivating figure and it doesn't hurt that his blue eyes, with just a hint green in them, are simply mesmerizing. I've always been drawn to Rod Taylor films. I thought I had seen quite a lot of them until I watched this doc and realized I had to dive further into his filmography. I enjoyed the graphic design elements of the documentary and how it was sectioned by theme in a sort of chronological order. It was aesthetically pleasing and a lot of fun to watch.

Rod Taylor Pulling No Punches is a thoroughly enjoyable documentary that captures the essence of the Australian movie star who charmed audiences around the world. Highly recommended.

Check out the official Facebook page for more details about the film. I hope a DVD and Blu-Ray release will be in the near future. It recently won Best Feature Documentary at the Burbank International Film Festival.

My good friend Jessica reviewed the documentary and interviewed the director and producer on her blog Comet Over Hollywood. I recommend you read it. She introduced me to the film!

Many thanks to the filmmakers for the opportunity to review the screener.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Final Summer Reading Challenge Round-Up

Congratulations to everyone who participated in this year's Summer Reading Challenge. It doesn't matter if you read one book or all six, I'm proud of the work you've done and your commitment to participating. I've had such a blast reading all of your reviews, seeing your blog posts, Instagram photos and more.

A special shout out to those who completed the challenge. I was so happy to finally finish this year (even though it was by the skin of my teeth). I'm definitely in good company with the following:

Sarah of Goodreads
Raquel of Out of the Past
Vanessa on Goodreads 

These participants (except for me of course) are eligible to win my contest. Instead of doing one winner and a runner-up I decided to randomly select three winners. And they are:

Andy, Emily and Robby

You all get your pick of one Warner Archive DVD (single disc). I'll be contacting you with details.

If you have any recommendations for how I can improve this challenge for next year please let me know in the comment section below!

Please make sure you visit my previous round-ups (First and Second) to read all the contributions by the participants.

Now on to the reviews:

Daffny of A Vintage Nerd
My Way of Life by Joan Crawford

Emily on Instagram
Dolores Del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade by Linda B. Hall
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson
Judy Holliday: An Intimate Life Story by Gary Carey
Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire" by Michelle Vogel

Jay of Thirty Hertz Rumble
Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers by Shamya Dasgupta

Karen of Shadows and Satin
52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter by Jeremy Arnold
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Dinner at Eight: A Play in Seven Scenes by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Laura by Vera Caspary
The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman
Whatever Became Of...? by Richard Lamparski

Lauren of Lauren Semar: Hollywood Party
A Book by Desi Arnaz 
Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand by William J. Mann
Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Molly of Dreaming in the Balcony
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy
Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style by Cindy De La Hoz

Raquel of Out of the Past
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue by James Layton and David Pierce
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis

Rob on Instagram
Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry by Holly George-Warren
Michael Douglas: A Biography by Marc Eliot
Karl Malden: Where Do I Start? A Memoir by Karl Malden

Sarah of Goodreads
Memoirs of a Professional Cad by George Sanders
Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis by Kathryn Sermak with Danelle Morton

Friday, September 15, 2017

William Cameron Menzies by James Curtis

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come
by James Curtis
November 2015
432 pages

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

"His name is William Cameron Menzies, whose name wouldn't cause a ripple among the screen's cash customers, but he is certainly one of the most important creative figures in Hollywood." - Irving Hoffman

Imagine the most entrancing movie scene you've ever laid your eyes on. You might credit the director or the cinematographer. But chances are that much of the credit should go to the production designer.  William Cameron Menzies took on my roles in his long career in Hollywood. Director, art director, producer  and even writer, he wore many hats and worked on many films. From the silent era until the late 1950s, Menzies contributed a vast amount of his enormous skill as a visual artist. His contributions varied from small to overwhelming and he worked tirelessly to create movies that enchanted audiences with their visual grandeur. Menzies was the master of forced perspective and set design. Sometimes he was a victim of his own talent and focused more on his art than on the functionality or bringing out the best in the actors. However Menzies single-handedly gave birth to the job of production designer and set the course for decades of films to come.

"As an art director I am interested in the photoplay as a series of pictures -- as a series of fixed and moving patterns -- as a fluid composition, which is the product of the creative workers who collaborate in production." - William Cameron Menzies

Author James Curtis took on the enormous task of telling the story of William Cameron Menzies impressive and lengthy career in Hollywood. Much like with his excellent book on Spencer Tracy, Curtis received help from the Menzies family, most notably Menzies' youngest daughter Suzanne. He had access to the family's collection of Menzies' art and letters and with all of that source material he was able to create a rich and thorough account of Menzies career.

While this book is less than 400 pages of actual reading, it is crammed with details that will take some time to absorb. It's also full of storyboard art, sketches, paintings, production stills and other photographs that illustrate Menzies' skills as a production designer and art director. These are presented in black and white images throughout the book as well as in a few full color inserts.

And the movies covered? There are so many. Most notably you'll learn about Menzies work on the following: The Thief of Bagdad, The Son of the Sheik, Bulldog Drummond, Puttin' on the Ritz, Chandu the Magician, Alice and Wonderland, Things to Come, Our Town, Kings Row, For Whom the Bells Tolls, The Pride of the Yankees, Spellbound, The Story of Ivy, It's a Wonderful Life, Reign of Terror, The Whip Hand, Invaders from Mars... oh and a little movie called Gone With the Wind.

William Cameron Menzies poses with some of his work from Gone With the Wind.

This was a fascinating book. I have to admit I have very little interest in GWTW which takes up a lot of the book. But it's the most important project Menzies worked on his career and the author is right to devote as many pages to it as he did. My list of to-be-watched films grew exponentially and I furiously took notes of what I wanted to watch.

Needless to say I highly recommend James Curtis' William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. Curtis is beloved in the classic film community and rightly so. This book is an spectacular achievement.

This is my sixth review for my summer reading challenge.

Monday, September 11, 2017

King of Jazz by James Layton and David Pierce

King of Jazz book
King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue
by James Layton and David Pierce
foreword by Michael Feinstein
November 2016
304 pages
Media History Press

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

King of Jazz (1930) was an ambitious project. The darling of Carl Laemmle's heir Carl Laemmle Jr., it sought out to showcase jazz superstar Paul Whiteman. The bandleader's popularity was staggering, boosted by his penchant for publicity and his ability to add to combine jazz with symphonic style. His name carried so much clout that night clubs were eager to be connected with him. Even his sideline bands and his singing trio the Rhythym Boys, made up of Al Rinker, Bing Crosby and Harry Barris, were in high demand. In 1927, Whiteman was at peak popularity and with the advent of sound in the film industry the Laemmles pounced on booking Whiteman for King of Jazz. But what exactly would this movie be about?

At first Universal tried to give King of Jazz a plot but what stood in their way was Whiteman himself. He wasn't particularly good looking so a romantic lead would be out of the question. He also wasn't much of an actor. Universal tried several times to make a musical out of King of Jazz. One of my favorite directors, Paul Fejos gave it a shot. As did other directors and other writers. Nothing was quite right. It didn't help that Whiteman turned everything down. It wasn't until musical theater director John Murray Anderson came on board and King of Jazz became a musical revue instead of a musical movie with a plot that the film started to take form. It featured a bevvy of talents, including Paul Whiteman himself, some from Universal's stock including John Boles, and others from theater and vaudeville. After many delays, King of Jazz released in 1930. Unfortunately, the onslaught of musicals and musical revues in the early talkie era created a fatigue for this genre of film. There were major flaws with the final production and critics and audiences alike took notice. As a result, it didn't perform well at the box office. However, this two-strip Technicolor movie was innovative and served as a time capsule of the era's entertainment industry. It would prove to be a historically important film.

King of Jazz (1930)

In Layton and Pierce's follow up to The Dawn of Technicolor, this book explores all that went into the making of King of Jazz and beyond. Readers are treated to a history of Universal Studios, a full background on Paul Whiteman and a soup to nuts look at everything that went into the production of King of Jazz down to the smallest detail. For example, we learn all that took to make the Rhapsody in Blue number as blue as possible which was nearly impossible with two-strip Technicolor. Only red and green would show. In order to mimic blue, they juxtaposed a light green with silver. Also, did you know that Bing Crosby was going to have a bigger role in King of Jazz? He caused a car wreck and upset a judge which landed him in jail. He would be released from jail each day to work a bit on the movie only to go back after he was done.

We also learn about the film's release, subsequent re-releases and the nine foreign language versions. The film's legacy is a complicated one. King of Jazz was chopped up and prints and scenes went missing. It took decades to put it back together and it's still not fully complete. The authors also delve into the expensive and impressive recent restoration effort conducted by NBC Universal. I had the pleasure of seeing the restored film at last year's Capitolfest.

 (The video above is not from the restoration rather from the color corrected re-release. 
This is one of my favorite numbers from the revue.)

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue is a monumental feat. It's mind-boggling how much research went into this book. As I read through it I kept thinking to myself, what great lengths it took the authors to dig up all this information and present in such a composed and orderly fashion.

I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for the creation of this book and am so pleased to see the final result. I loved reading The Dawn of Technicolor and I had high expectations for Layton and Pierce's new book. Needless to say these expectations were met and then some. This book is gorgeous. It's full of black-and-white photographs, drawings, sketches, music, portraits and color stills from the film. It's smaller in trim size than The Dawn of Technicolor which makes for much more comfortable reading. A lot of love and attention was put in this book and it shows from the self-cover down to the appendix.

For anyone who is interested in the early history of film, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue is a must-have for your library. Even if you have never seen the King of Jazz, the insights into the history of it will teach you a lot about this era in film making. Now maybe one day soon we'll get a Blu-Ray release of the fantastic restoration.

This is my fifth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

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