Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) Blu-Ray from Warner Archive

"The film is magic and still astounds today." - Howard Keel, 1996

How does one accidentally produce one of the greatest musicals ever made? MGM managed to do just that with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Intended to be a B-movie musical, MGM threw more of their time and money into another musical, Brigadoon, slashed the budget for Seven Brides and left director Stanley Donen with the task of creating a backwoods period piece musical on the MGM lot with painted backdrops and no on location shooting. Thank goodness they at least kept the Cinemascope and Ansco Color! It's not that MGM wanted Seven Brides to be a failure. Even a B-musical was going to be a quality production. This film included songs by Johnny Mercer, an original score, choreography by Michael Kidd, two established leading stars Howard Keel and Jane Powell and a stable of up-and-coming talent as well as expert dancers and acrobats. All the ingredients came together to make a powerhouse musical that would entertain generations to come. The original title for Seven Brides was Sobbin' Women, a reference to a musical number and key plot point. But who would go see a musical about crying women? Pass. Then the unintentionally suggestive A Bride for Seven Brothers was considered then wisely scrapped. A simple tweak and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was born. MGM released Seven Brides just as the current wave of musicals was reaching its end. It went on to receive 5 Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture in 1955.

Seven Brides is often given a bad rap by contemporary audiences for poor gender politics. As a woman and a feminist, I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes Milly (Jane Powell) is basically tricked into taking care of 7 men when she only bargained for one. And yes the six brothers kidnap their six future brides. And yes Adam (Howard Keel) is backwards in his opinions about women and their roles in society. But if you focus on just those points then you miss the entire plot of the movie. The whole story is about how these seven brothers learn how to respect women. Their transformation is led by Milly. She's feisty, opinionated, and strong-willed. She never backs down. Disgusted by how the seven brothers keep house and keep themselves, she whips them into shape. After a disastrous trip into town, she teaches them how to properly court women and mind their manners. Milly's lessons are taken into account by all the brothers only to be sabotaged later when Adam, in the Sobbin' Women number, convinces the younger Pontipees to kidnap their women. When they do, Milly casts them out of the house to sleep in the barn. She's not afraid to tell them straight to their faces that their actions are abhorrent. She refers to them as animals and brutes. The women are separated from the men until Spring time and basically until they can figure out how to appreciate women. And for stubborn Adam it takes the birth of his daughter and the influence of his youngest brother, played by Russ Tamblyn, to see the error of his ways.

Six years ago, I watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and wrote about it as part of my Weddings in Film series. One of the biggest takeaways for me was how this movie conveyed the importance of communication in relationships. In that piece I wrote:

The disappointment in Milly and Adam's newlywed life stems from two major faults in their courtship: lack of communication and lack of time to get to know each other. But even a misunderstanding like that can be worked on with lots of future communication, patience, understanding, compromise and love.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is now available on Blu-Ray for the very first time thanks to the good folks at the Warner Archive Collection. The two disc set includes a bunch of extras which I have listed below:

Disc One:
  • Song Menu
  • Captions
  • Audio Commentary by Stanley Donen (2004)
  • MGM Jubilee Overture (1954) (aka the best dressed orchestra you'll ever see in your life). With MGM Symphony Orchestra led by Johnny Green and featuring songs from MGM musicals. (Remastered in 1080p HD, 16x9 2.55 anamorphic aspect ratio with 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio)
  • 43 minute documentary "Sobbin' Women: The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, hosted by Howard Keel (1996, updated 2004 to include more interviews) - features Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn, Stanley Donen, Julie Newmar, Jacques d'Amboise, Ruta Lee and more. 
  • Radio City Music Hall Premiere - July 22, 1954
  • MGM's 30th Anniversary (1954 MGM Newsreel) 

Disc Two:
  • Rarely-seen 1.77:1 alternate Widescreen Version (1080p HD)
  • Song Menu
  • Captions

According to George Feltenstein, Seven Brides was one of 5 MGM movies shot twice. Once in Cinemascope and shot again in Widescreen. All of the scenes were shot twice and staged slightly differently each time. A sharp eye will spot the differences especially in the barn raising sequence. This version was shelved for years and even though it would have worked beautifully for television, a pan-and-scan version of the Cinemascope was used instead. A true injustice!

On the Warner Archive podcast, Feltenstein goes on to say that in the process of developing a 70mm print of Seven Brides for distribution in England, the original negative was damaged. Also Ansco color tends to turn green as it ages. Felteinstein referred to the restoration of Seven Brides for Blu-Ray as one of the most ambitious projects ever taken on by the Warner Archive.

I've seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in many formats over the years. At home with my DVD, on TCM, streaming on Filmstruck and on the big screen at a local repertory house. The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is the most stunning presentation of this movie I've seen so far. If you are a fan of this wonderful musical, run, don't walk, to add this new Blu-Ray set to your movie library.

Further reading: Check out my post on Ruta Lee on the Inside the Envelope DVD Netflix blog and find out what she had to say about working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection. 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. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me the Blu-Ray of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) to review!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

“The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” – Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

Gloria Grahame has always been a complicated figure in the classic film world. She was a talented actress with a frank sexuality that made her captivating to watch on screen. She was electric. Grahame had a gift for playing complex women because she knew what it was to be one. Plagued by an internal battle with self-esteem, she was obsessed with her upper lip, stuffing it with cotton until she finally had plastic surgery to fix what she thought was a physical flaw. She married four times and had four children but it was her last marriage to former stepson Anthony Ray, son of her second husband director Nicholas Ray, that caused a major scandal effectively ending her movie career. In her final years, Grahame focused on TV work and worked on the stage. No longer the movie star she once was she still chased the dream of playing interesting women to an eager audience.

In 1987 Peter Turner, Grahame’s lover and close friend published a memoir called Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. It chronicled their time together and Grahame’s final days as she succumbed to the breast cancer and peritonitis that would kill her in October of 1981. Three decades after the memoir hit bookstores, a new biopic brings their story to the silver screen.

Directed by Paul McGuigan, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) stars Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame. Told in a series of flashbacks, the story begins when Grahame collapses just as she's about to go on stage for her performance in The Glass Menagerie. Her now former lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) takes her in where his family, especially his doting mother (Julie Walters) takes care of the failing Grahame. The story shifts between 1979 and 1981 and as we follow the trajectory of Grahame and Turner’s romance. The two meet as struggling actors living in a rundown apartment building in Liverpool. Drawn to each other like moths to flames, they start a passionate love affair. They share a mutual love for theater and for each other. Grahame takes Turner with her to New York and Los Angeles, he meets her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and sister Joy (Frances Barber) in what turns out to be a very unfortunate gathering. Grahame is constantly struggling with getting older and any mention her age sets her on edge. The age gap between her and Turner doesn't help things either. When faced with mortality, Grahame decides to move forward on her own terms. The two part ways only to be reunited when Grahame needs Turner the most.

There are no real spoilers in this film unless you know nothing about Gloria Grahame’s life. While the story touches upon her former career, we see clips from In a Lonely Place (1950) and her accepting her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the movie is only concerned with those final years in Liverpool with Peter Turner. The film is intimate and sensual. Bening and Bell have a chemistry that made the onscreen love affair believable. While they were both age appropriate for their roles, I didn’t quite see Grahame and Turner in Bening and Bell. Did they completely pull off playing these parts? Only Peter Turner himself will ever know for sure. They are however very convincing as an aging actress in failing health who falls in love with a much younger actor.

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

I love how this film approached a critical point in their relationship. We see both perspectives rather than just Turner’s. Also Grahame is as complicated in this movie as she was in real life. She is a perplexing character. Is she sabotaging herself with her self-destructive behavior? Or is she just a strong-willed woman choosing to live the rest of the days on her own terms. Or maybe a bit of both? This film is filled with moments of joy and sadness but ultimately it will break your heart.

Produced by Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Albert R. Broccoli, for Eon Productions which has long been known for producing the James Bond films. This is one of their rare ventures outside the franchise. The movie reunites Jamie Bell and Julie Walters 17 years after they made Billy Elliot (2000).

The DVD comes with a bunch of special features including commentary track by director Paul McGuigan, producer Barbara Broccoli and Peter Turner himself. There is also a short vignette of Annette Bening talking about Gloria Grahame and an Elvis Costello music video with accompanying behind the scenes shorts. There is also a 31 minute film panel interview featuring Annette Bening, McGuigan, Turner and Jamie Bell. I can't tell what event it's from but I know it was hosted by Variety and FilmStruck. I couldn't watch more than 10 minutes of this because the interviewer did such a poor job asking her questions. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was really nervous? Maybe this was a last minute gig and she didn't have time to prepare? It was so uncomfortable to watch that I just couldn't get through it.

Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool on And while you're at it check out their 20th Anniversary site with lots of cool features, videos and ways to earn swag.

I won a copy of this movie by entering DVD Netflix's giveaway on Instagram. They regularly feature new DVD releases on their account so make sure to follow them there!

Friday, June 22, 2018

My Summer Reading Picks and a Giveaway!

Did you sign up for my Summer Reading Challenge yet? If not there is still plenty of time to do so. I challenge you to read up to 6 classic film books this summer and review them online. This is the perfect opportunity to tackle that TBR stack that's been piling up.

If you are entered into my challenge I have a fun prompt for you. Share the books you plan to read this summer on your blog, Goodreads or social media profile. Even if you haven't selected all the titles or have too many to chose from, share what you are particularly interested in reading. Use hashtag #ClassicFilmReading and tag me on any social platform you chose (my links are available on the sidebar) and I'll make sure to share. Or you can e-mail me too (visit the contact page for details).

On my YouTube channel, I shared my 6-ish picks for this year's challenge.

And I'm hosting a giveaway too! Enter for a chance to win Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. The book is courtesy of the publisher Applause Books. Watch the video for more information on how to enter. The contest ends 7/1. Good luck!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Gay Bride (1934)

Chester Morris, Nat Pendleton, Carole Lombard and Zasu Pitts in The Gay Bride (1934)

1934 was a transitional year in the film industry. The Hays Code, which had been in effect for years but not strictly enforced, was now the law of the land. Hollywood got away with a lot in those few years between the advent of talking pictures and the enforcement of the Code. Pre-Code films went on to become a genre much beloved by future generations of film buffs because of how these early 1930s films pushed boundaries. In an effort to conform to this new censorship, post-code films went through a scrubbing of content, washing away much of what titillated audiences . In 1934 especially, filmmakers were trying to figure out how to get their pre-code stories to fit into this new post-code mold. The Gay Bride (1934) is an example of how fitting a round peg into a square hole just didn't quite work out.

The Gay Bride stars Carole Lombard as Mary, a chorus girl looking to lock her wealthy racketeer boyfriend Shoots Magiz (Nat Pendleton) into holy matrimony. Ignoring the warnings of her trusty sidekick Mirabelle (Zasu Pitts), she manages to snag her cash cow. Due to the nature of his business and its occupational hazards, Mary makes quick work to secure her fortune. On her wedding night, her lawyer finalizes Shoots' will and the next day they set off on a cruise to Europe so Mary can shop to her hearts delight. When Shoots and Mary come back from their mostly disastrous trip (only Greece would have them), more trouble awaits. Shoot's assistant Jimmie (Chester Morris), affectionately referred to as Office Boy, is the only member of Shoots' crew with any common sense. He tries to protect his boss from his impending financial failure but can't protect him from the ill intentions of Mikey The Greek (Leo Carillo) and Daniel J. Dingle (Sam Hardy). All three men have an eye for Mary and one of them is set on removing Shoots permanently. Mary's desire for financial security hangs in the balance as she discovers that mob life is more than she bargained for.

"I wondered when you boys were going to tumble."

Based on Charles Francis Coe's novel Repeal, the title was changed and the story adapted to the screen by husband and wife writing team Sam and Bella Spewack, best known for their collaboration on Broadway play turned movie Kiss Me Kate. This is the only MGM film featuring Paramount star Carole Lombard. MGM was known for quality productions (or as Warner Archive's George Feltenstein called it "the Tiffany's of movie studios) and Lombard assumed this film would be one too. However, her costar Chester Morris knew it was a dud from the start. The film was directed by Jack Conway, a mainstay in the MGM stable of talent. Conway could be counted on to deliver movies to the studio execs on budget and on time.

The Gay Bride was panned by critics and did not perform well at the box office. However Carole Lombard was a bankable star and theatres made the most of it. According to Carole Lombard biographer Michelle Morgan, "The idea of Carole playing a 'gold-digging chiseller' inspired the Lowe's State Theatre in New Orleans to give out special 'Chiseller Club' membership cards to their patrons, with Carole listed as secretary. Nearby stores were also utilized and included movie-inspired floral displays in bridal shops and hair displays in a beauty parlor."

Chester Morris, Carole Lombard and Nat Pendleton in The Gay Bride (1934)

"When you missed meals as a kid money becomes awfully important."

The story had a lot of potential. I was particularly interested in Mary's motivations. She's a glamorous chorus girl who courts the attention of notorious racketeer. Having grown up desperately poor she's hell bent on having a financially secure future. In one scene, Mary tells Mirabelle that she's not about a quick buck rather she wants to have enough money to live comfortably into her 50s, 60s and beyond. A richer story would have explored Mary's history and fleshed out the characters. The final result is a movie that is enjoyable but on the whole superficial.

The Gay Bride is a hybrid of several popular genres. It starts out as a backstage story, morphs into a gangster flick, then into a screwball comedy and ends with a romance. Tying it all together is this thread living through the Great Depression. While the story and characters are lacking, viewers will be delighted by the superb cast including some 1930s all-stars like Carole Lombard, Chester Morris, Nat Pendleton and Zasu Pitts, who are all personal favorites of mine. Actor Gene Lockhart has a small uncredited role. The movie's dialogue is witty and I found myself writing down several fun quotes. I'd be interested in reading the original source material to see what potential there was in making The Gay Bride/Repeal into a Pre-Code film.

The Gay Bride (1934) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection. You can hear the WAC trio George, D.W. and Matt discuss the film on the Warner Archive Podcast.

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 The Gay Bride (1934) to review!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe (1964) poster

The year was 1963 and Columbia Pictures was in a pickle. They had two Cold War movies currently in production that basically told the same story but in very different ways. One was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farce based on the otherwise serious novel Red Alert (aka Two Hours to Doom) by Peter George. The other was Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, based on Eugene Burdick and Henry Wheeler's best-selling novel of the same name. One was a satire and one a serious thriller but both delivered a frightening warning about nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove was well into production Kubrick got word of Lumet's project and he threatened to sue Columbia. To appease Kubrick, Columbia agreed to release Dr. Strangelove in January of 1964 and not to release Fail-Safe until September of the same year. That would give both movies some breathing room. Little did Columbia know that Dr. Strangelove would be such an acclaimed hit that it would essentially set up Fail-Safe for failure.

Ben Mankiewicz presenting Fail-Safe (1964), 2018 TCMFF opening night

At the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, opening night included a world premiere restoration of Fail-Safe by Sony Pictures, which now owns Columbia. Fail-Safe screenwriter Walter Bernstein was to be on hand to discuss the film with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. A fan of the film, Mankiewicz considers Bernstein a personal hero and requested that he introduce the film at TCMFF. Unfortunately, the day before the festival 98-year-old Bernstein suffered a serious fall that landed him in the emergency room. Mankiewicz stepped in and offered a 15 minute introduction with a brief audience Q&A. 

Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter of several films including The Magnificent Seven, Something's Gotta Give (Marilyn Monroe's final unfinished film), Semi-Tough, The Front, The Money Trap and of course Fail-Safe. Over the years Bernstein has always been very candid about his blacklist experience. According to Mankiewicz, Bernstein was a member of the Communist party from 1946 to 1956, wrote for a variety of radical groups and his name appeared in red channels. Because of his involvement the House of Un-American Activities Committee wanted to subpoena him. Bernstein had no interest in naming names and wanted to avoid jail time so he went underground instead of appearing in front of the committee. Luckily for him, the HUAC was starting to lose its power and was able to avoid jail time. He kept busy writing scripts under pseudonyms. Although Dalton Trumbo was famous for breaking the blacklist in 1960 with credited roles in Exodus and Spartacus, Bernstein quietly broke the blacklist in 1959 with Sidney Lumet's That Kind of Woman (1959). Lumet was interested in working with Bernstein but wanted to ask him some questions. They regarded Bernstein's involvement with Communist and radical groups and publications. Bernstein was unabashedly open in his responses. Mankiewicz joked that his responses were "yeah! up! That's me. I did that. Yes that's right." Mankiewicz went on to say that Bernstein shed his radical ties but went on to become "a very proud progressive. [Bernstein] says there are people who run the world and people who make the world run. Whose side are you on? Regardless of your politics you have to like Walter Bernstein."

Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe
Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964)

"I tell you the truth, these machines scare the hell out of me."

Lumet and Bernstein would join forces again on Fail-Safe, a magnificent nail-biter that explores how a mechanical failure could lead to nuclear war. The term fail-safe refers to how devices are set-up in order to cause the least amount of damage when they fail and the film explores what could happen when we rely to much on machines. The movie stars Henry Fonda as the President. As the commander-in-chief, he is given the grave task of making the hard decisions of how his military will proceed when a bomber pilot Col. Grady (Edward Binns) is given a false signal to drop two nuclear missiles on Moscow. Assisting the president is Gen. Black (Dan O'Herlihy) whose been suffering from nightmares about impending nuclear war, the headstrong Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) who thinks accidental war with Russia is a good thing, the head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton), Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver) who loses his cool at a crucial moment, and Buck (Larry Hagman), a translator who is key to the president's communications with Russia. The film starts off slow and builds up so much momentum in the second half that I found myself literally at the edge of my seat wanting to scream profanities at the screen. This is a dialogue driven drama and Walter Bernstein does a fantastic job building the tension that propels the story forward. Due to the nature of the story, the characters suffer a terrible internal conflict that we see unravel as the plot progresses. To prevent a nuclear war that will destroy all of earth's inhabitants, Russia becomes an ally when they were once an enemy. The men battle with the new grey area that separates patriotism and treason. Dom DeLuise who plays Sergeant Collins, has a particular poignant scene when he must give up a military secret to Russia when other members of SAC could not.

The serious war room.

Edward Binns in Fail-Safe
Edward Binns in Fail-Safe

"Anyone would crack under the stain."

The film received much opposition from the Johnson administration who didn't want to see it come to fruition. According to Sidney Lumet, his crew was denied access to information and archival footage. The scene in which we see the bomber plane and it's five defense planes take off was bootleg footage of one plane taking off that was repeated to make it seem like it was six different planes. Before I saw the movie at TCMFF, I spoke to film researcher Lillian Michelson. She told me she worked on the movie studying and reporting back with information about a variety of military tactics and technologies. I'm sure Michelson filled in the blanks for many details that the government wasn't willing to provide the filmmakers.

George Clooney remade Fail-Safe in 2000 as a TV movie broadcast live on CBS. Walter Bernstein wrote the new adaptation. According to Mankiewicz, Columbia owned the rights to the original novel but not to Bernstein's 1964 screenplay. So anything added to the 1964 movie that was not in the book could not be used in the TV movie. For example, instead of the wife talking to her pilot husband the TV remake had a son talking to his pilot dad. On the afternoon of the live broadcast, TCM was going to show the original movie. Clooney begged TCM to reconsider and said he would do anything for them in exchange. TCM pulled the movie but Clooney has still to make good on his end of the deal.

Fail-Safe (1964) is one of the best war movies I have ever seen and it quickly became one of my favorite movies. It's so brilliantly acted, the plot so well-paced and it induced so much anxiety that I couldn't help but be completely and utterly engrossed. While I enjoyed Dr. Strangelove and consider it one of the greatest satires of all time, as far as Cold War stories go I think Fail-Safe is a far superior film. It's a shame Fail-Safe wasn't taken seriously when it came out because it was stuck in the shadow of the film that came before it. I highly recommend watching Fail-Safe knowing as little as possible about the plot (I gave very little away in my description) and embracing the fear that this film will instill in you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

2018 Summer Reading Challenge

I'm proud to announce this year's summer reading challenge! It's time to dust off those classic film books and get reading. I challenge you to read and review 6 classic film books this summer. See below for details on how to sign-up and participate. One small addition this year, the challenge has an official hashtag! Make sure you use that when posting about it on social.

All of the details below including the review submission form can be found on the official Summer Reading page.

Happy reading!

2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge

  • Sign up for the challenge (see form below)
  • Read a classic film book
  • Write a review and post it on your Blog, Instagram or Goodreads profile
  • Use hashtag #classicfilmreading
  • Submit your review link (see form on the Summer Reading page)
  • Repeat until you have read and reviewed 6 books!
  • Review 6 and be automatically entered to win a prize.

Challenge runs from June 7th until September 15th, 2018. Sign-up before July 15th.

Because of the late start this year, any books read within the entire month of June can count towards the challenge.

See full details below.

What counts as a classic film book?
  • Biographical book about some from the classic film era. Biography, autobiography, memoir or a collection of interviews or letters all count. Can be about an actor, actress, director or other cast or crew member.
  • Book about films – specific film(s), genre, film-making process, etc.
  • A photography or art book related to classic films, fashion, style or a particular person.
  • Film criticism or analysis
  • 20th century novel that was adapted into a classic film
  • Novel fictionalizing a classic film or an actor/actress from old Hollywood.

How many books should you read?

You can read one book in each category, 6 books in one category or mix it up. Read a book you’ve never read before or re-read an old favorite. The book can be brand new or long out-of-print. I'm flexible about what constitutes "classic film" and I'll accept anything up until the 1970s. Beyond that, please check with me before submitting your review.

If you complete all 6 reviews by September 15th you’ll be eligible to win one single disc DVD-MOD from Warner Archive, film of your choosing. # of winners to be determined.

Open internationally!

If you have a blog, feel free to grab a button!

Grab button for the 2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge
<div class="Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge" style="width: 300px; margin: 0 auto;"> <a href="" rel="nofollow"> <img src="" alt="2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge" width="300" height="300" /> </a> </div>

Grab button for the 2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge
<div class="Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge" style="width: 500px; margin: 0 auto;"> <a href="" rel="nofollow"> <img src="" alt="2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge" width="500" height="500" /> </a> </div>

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Highway Dragnet (1954)

"First guy who moves gets a belly full of lead."

Jim Henry (Richard Conte) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jim meets with a fellow Marine in Las Vegas to discuss fixing up his seaside home that's been flooded by rising waters. While in Sin City he meets temperamental model Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes). The night after their confrontation at a bar, she winds up dead in her hotel room, the result of strangulation with a strap. The police, led by Det. Lt. Eagle (Reed Hadley) are led to Jim who has an alibi with his Marine friend whom he plans to meet back in California. He's the only one who can prove Jim's innocence. After escaping the police, Jim finds two women stranded on the desert highway: photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and model Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). After helping these two with their broken down car, he rides off with them hoping to get back home to find his friend. The two women quickly realize this mysterious hitchhiker is on the run from the cops. Can Jim make it back home in time to prove that he's not the strap killer? Or will the cops catch up with him before he gets the chance?

Released by Allied Artists, Highway Dragnet (1954) is a short B-movie thriller directed by Nathan Juran. It clocks in at 1 hour and 10 minutes and while that may seem rather short the story is fairly simple and straightforward and the time frame worked perfectly for the plot. It's low budget, a bit cheesy but has a great cast in the form of Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix and supporting players like Reed Hadley and Mary Beth Hughes. Fans of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) will recognize Frank Jenks who plays a Marine suspected of being the runaway convict.

This film came out at a time of transition for the three main stars. This was a few years after Joan Bennett's infamous career halting scandal. A love triangle resulted in her husband, producer Walter Wanger, shooting her agent, Jennings Lang, in the groin. Lang survived and Wanger was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. Highway Dragnet was her return to movies. Richard Conte had recently lost his contract with Fox and the 1950s brought him many B-movie roles. In the following decade his career would take a turn with some small parts in better movies including some of my favorites like Ocean's 11 (1960) and The Godfather (1972). The year Highway Dragnet was released was the same year actress Wanda Hendrix briefly retired from films. After her disastrous marriage to actor Audie Murphy, she decided to step back from acting when she married James Langford Stack Jr., brother of actor Robert Stack. When that marriage fell apart she returned to acting with a handful of parts on TV and a few more movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Highway Dragnet is famed producer/director/writer Roger Corman's first credited screen role. He wrote a screenplay entitled House by the Sea, a reference to the protagonist's beloved home, and sold it to Allied Artists. Corman didn't realize the transformation his screenplay would undertake at the hands of the filmmakers. Several writers worked on the script including Herb Meadow, Jerome Odlum, Tom Hubbard and Fred Eggers. The end result was far different from Corman's original vision. According to biographer Pawel Aleksandrowicz,

"Corman was so appalled at the difference between the original version and the final product that he decided to produce his films by himself in order to have full control over them." 

He used the funds he earned from Highway Dragnet to produce The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). Corman mastered the art of making low-budget movies that entertained audiences and turned a profit. And the rest is history. I would love to read Corman's original screenplay to compare with the final movie. I have some ideas about what was left out or changed.

The relationship between the two female leads played by Joan Bennett (Mrs. Cummings) and Wanda Hendrix (Susan) suggest something more going on in the background. Perhaps this was intended in Corman's screenplay but played down in the final script? Their relationship hints at a romance between the two and they switch gender roles throughout the film. Susan is dressed in a crop top and pants and covered in grease from trying to fix their car, something Jim points out when he meets Susan for the first time. In contrast, Mrs. Cummings is full on glam in a white dress, heels and sunglasses. We learn that Mrs. Cummings is a photographer and Susan is her model. The two have a close relationship that extends beyond their business partnership. When they arrive at the hotel for their poolside photo shoot, the dynamic shifts with Mrs. Cummings taking the lead and Susan being the object of her attention for both good and bad. When Susan develops an affection for Jim, this threatens their relationship. Perhaps romantically but the story focuses more on the dark secret Mrs. Cummings is hiding from everyone except for Susan. The hotel scenes reminded me greatly of the film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara which also involves women, traveling down a highway on a road trip and a fellow traveler, male, threatens their happiness.

Highway Dragnet (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. They've been releasing DVDs and Blu-Rays of a variety of independently produced/released films from mid-century Hollywood. I encourage you to check out their growing catalog of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, many of which I've reviewed on this blog.

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Highway Dragnet (1954) on Blu-Ray to review!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

6 Questions with Alicia Malone on TCM's Mad About Musicals

This month TCM in conjunction with Ball State University is hosting a free online course and month long programming called Mad About Musicals. The course started on June 3rd but they've extended the deadline for signing up to 6/17!

If you're participating in the course or just tuning in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to watch musicals, check out my interview with TCM host Alicia Malone. 

Raquel Stecher: What can those who signed up for the TCM’s Mad About Musicals course expect?

Alicia Malone: I’m jealous of everyone who is participating, because you get lessons by the knowledgeable and hilarious Dr. Vanessa Theme Ament, who you’ll also get to see on TCM doing some special intros alongside Ben Mankiewicz. You also get to see special interviews, movie clips and play games to test your expertise. And all of it works alongside the programming on TCM.

Raquel S.: What can viewers expect from TCM’s Mad About Musicals screenings this June and which films will you be introducing?

Alicia M: Throughout June viewers will be able to watch more than 90 musicals, selected from the 1920s through to the 1970s, showing every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ll be introducing the films on Tuesday evenings, and I feel very lucky that I get to introduce some of my personal favorites, such as Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951).

Raquel S.: How did musicals evolve over the 20th century?

Alicia M: Doing preparation for this month has been so much fun, because watching a bulk of musicals in a short amount of time allowed me to see how they evolved. At the very beginning, musicals were used to showcase how sound could be used in movies. They were often Broadway adaptations, with sequences filmed on a stage. But then as they grew in popularity, studios (especially MGM) saw them as important vehicles for their biggest stars, and as technicolor began to be introduced, musicals got bigger, splashier and brighter than ever. But by the end of the 1950s these productions were getting too expensive, and audiences weren’t as interested in these pieces of escapism. Though every decade there comes a few new musicals, such as La La Land (2016), which looked to the past and became a huge hit.

Raquel S.: Why is it important to learn about film history and in this case the history of musicals?

Alicia M: I actually think musicals are a fun way to start learning about film history, because the two go hand in hand. Learning about film history helps you to enjoy watching movies. You start to be aware of what was happening at the time it was made, why the directors chose certain shots, songs or stars. And everything is influenced by what came before it, so I love being able to spot how films have changed but also stayed the same.

Raquel S.: Some folks love musicals and some don’t. What would you say to convince film lovers who are hesitant about musicals that this is a genre to enjoy?

Alicia M: I would tell them to look at the artistry of the filmmaking. The skill of the dancers, the costuming, the catchy songs, how sometimes a whole script was written around a group of completely different songs. Sometimes people are quick to write off musicals as being simple entertainment but there was a lot of care put into the making of these movies.

Raquel S.: What is your favorite musical and why?

Alicia M: My favorite is Singin’ In The Rain (1952). That might be a cliched answer, but I don’t care... it’s a film that always brings me joy. It’s also the film that I saw which made me love musicals in the first place. I watched it when I was really young, dreamed about doing that wall flip that Donald O’Connor does in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and learned all the songs. I still put it on whenever I need a little pick-me-up. “Dignity, always dignity...” This is the movie I recommend to those who are skeptical of watching classic film in general, it has an energy that is infectious.

Many thanks to Alicia Malone for taking the time to chat with me about TCM's Mad About Musicals!

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook