Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only" by Patrick McGilligan

I recently finished reading "Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only" by Patrick McGilligan, a thoroughly-researched biography of the pioneering independent African-American filmmaker that provides a rich account of his fascinating life and his many films, relatively few of which survive. The details of Micheaux's production and distribution strategies provide great insight in to the nature of "race" film and independent film models as they existed in the 1920s-40s. Perhaps the most interesting portions of the book, however, are those sections dealing with Micheaux's early years as a homesteader in South Dakota and his early work as a novelist, which paved the way for the subjects he would return to again and again in his films.

McGilligan also provides whatever details still survive about some phantom Micheaux films -- projects that were referred to in the press but are not known to survive or were even to have been produced or completed at all. Among the most intriguing of the lost Micheaux films are his first, THE HOMESTEADER (1918), based on his first novel, and his final film, THE BETRAYAL (1948), which ran over three hours and from the description sounds like a fascinating capstone to Micheaux's long career that brought together many of his favorite themes.

McGilligan paints a rich portrait of one of the most significant, but also enigmatic, figures in film history. The book is a much-needed examination of Micheaux's life and career. Through it all, Micheaux emerges as a larger-and-than life figure who tirelessly pursued and realized his artistic ambitions against significant challenges.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Emperor Waltz (1948)

Bright Technicolor musical comedy set in 1905 Austria. Bing Crosby is a brash American traveling salesman determined to sell the Emperor Franz Joseph on his new gramophone, and with the emperor's endorsement, corner the market in Austria. His priorities change when he strikes up a romance with the Countess Johanna (Joan Fontaine), but the expected complications ensue when their class differences threaten to keep them apart.

The Brackett & Wilder script, bolstered by gorgeous Technicolor cinematography, lavish settings (including some scenic location work with Alberta, Canada standing in for the Alps), and a fine cast -- topped by Crosby and Fontaine as the appealing leads, supported by Richard Haydn, Roland Culver, Lucile Watson and Sig Ruman -- make this one a delight.

In his interview with Cameron Crowe, director Billy Wilder said he didn't think too highly of this film. It may not have been one of its director's favorites, but see it for yourself!

Friday, September 27, 2019

Re-visiting the Astaire and Rogers Musicals

FLYING DOWN TO RIO (1933) -- Fred and Ginger have supporting roles in this South American-flavored love story. The leads are Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio, but it's Astaire & Rogers who made a big impression, especially with the extended "Carioca" number. It's an enjoyable romantic-musical comedy but mostly of note today for introducing Astaire and Rogers to the screen as a team.

THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934) -- One of the team's funniest pictures, especially the "Let's Knock Knees" number with Edward Everett Horton. Contains some of their best numbers, including "Night and Day" and "The Continental". I enjoyed this one primarily for the great comedy.

ROBERTA (1935) -- Coming after THE GAY DIVORCEE, this one feels like a step backward, putting Astaire and Rogers into supporting roles under stars Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne. But their scenes together are fun, as always, and the movie comes to life when they are on-screen. Unlike the later misfire CAREFREE, this one is just a rather dull film lacking the energy of the best Astaire & Rogers pictures. Musical highlights are "I Won't Dance" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

TOP HAT (1935) -- Perhaps Fred and Ginger's most elegant film. The plot is a solid farce of mistaken relationships, making it one of the team's most fun pictures as well, topped by a first-rate Irving Berlin score.

FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936) -- Possibly the lightest and most entertaining entry in the Astaire & Rogers cycle, with a nice ensemble cast (Fred and Ginger, along with Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard) who gel nicely together. The shipboard scenes are a lot of fun, and offer a nice backdrop for some dance numbers. The highlight for me is "Let's Face the Music and Dance", performed on a stunning Art Deco stage.

SWING TIME (1936) -- Some really beautiful numbers here that showcase the team here to their full potential. Astaire's "Bojangles of Harlem" number is particularly impressive for the synchronized dancing against the backdrop of dancing shadows, and the "A Fine Romance" number get my vote as the most beautiful that the team ever did, performed on a snowy soundstage -- Hollywood artifice at its most appealing. Often cited as the team's best film, but I found myself missing the colorful supporting cast of some of the other films who were always such a welcome presence.

SHALL WE DANCE (1937) -- Another one I enjoyed primarily for the comedy, another romantic farce with an amusing premise of a bit of gossip getting blown up into a full-fledged scandal. The syncopated shipboard machinery of the "Slap That Bass" number is great example of the really innovative numbers that I love about these films. Several great George & Ira Gershwin tunes appear here including "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", "They Can't Take That Away From Me", and the title song.

CAREFREE (1938) -- The weakest of the team's vehicles. It has a strong feel of the "Screwball" comedy style about it, which makes for some fun, zany scenes, but it lacks the tender, subtle moments of their best films, and contains no especially memorable dance numbers.

THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE (1939) -- This biopic of the husband-and-wife dance team is a sprawling but charming affair. Somewhat an atypical film in the Astaire and Rogers cycle, much more dramatic than usual for them, but still a fine showcase for their talents, and featuring a virtual songbook of late 19th- and early 20th-century tunes.

THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949) -- Fred & Ginger's final film as a team, about a husband and wife musical comedy team whose relationship (both personal and professional) is threatened when the wife decides to pursue a dramatic acting career. An MGM production, it's bigger and more elaborate than their earlier RKO pictures, and their only film together to be shot in Technicolor, but Astaire and Rogers never get overwhelmed by the production value, and it's great to see them reprise "They Can't Take that Away From Me". A fitting capper to one of the finest pairings in all of cinema.

Pygmalion (1937)

1937 Dutch film version of the George Bernard Shaw play, starring Lily Bouwmeester as Eliza and Johan De Meester as Higgins.

Made a year before the classic Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller version. The humor translates surprisingly well, although the dialogue necessarily loses some of its nuance when translated in subtitles. Interesting to see a different ending to the story rather than the one that Shaw wrote for the 1938 film.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Lord of the Manor (1933)

This fun British "Quota Quickie" is a comedy of manners set in an English manor home. When the lord of the manor is forced to move some of the workers in to his spare rooms, romance blooms between two of the young aristocrats and their new housemates.

Henry Wilcoxon -- a year before his breakout role in DeMille's CLEOPATRA -- has an early role here as the young working class man who falls in love with aristocrat Betty Stockfeld. Frederick Kerr, best remembered by movie buffs as Baron Frankenstein in the 1931 Universal horror classic, gives a fine comic starring turn in the title role, wonderfully paired with Kate Cutler as his wife. Also in the cast are Frank Bertram, Joan Marion, Deering Wells, and April Dawn. Written by John Hastings Turner.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

T-Men (1947)

Looking for an early morning movie I came across this one on the Criterion Channel. Seemed like a good pick for an early Saturday morning...

Always enjoy these Anthony Mann noir/procedurals. This time Dennis O'Keefe is a treasury agent pursuing a group of counterfeiters. Worth watching for John Alton's incredible cinematography alone.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Watched this one last night and realized I hadn't seen it before. I guess it was one of those Hitchcock films I always intended to get around to but actually hadn't seen yet. He supposedly made it as a favor to Carole Lombard -- although further details indicate it was a project he personally initiated on his own -- but either way, Lombard is absolutely radiant in it, and her typically brilliant comedy timing and energy gels fine with Hitchcock's direction. This was just her second-to-last film before her untimely death.

In the DVD supplements, director Richard Franklin calls this Hitchcock's only "essentially American picture" -- which is true in the sense that he's working entirely within a distinctly Hollywood genre (Screwball comedy), and engaging in pure farce rather than his usual droll sense of humor.

Despite its title, this film bears no relation to the 2005 film with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who reveal that they are both assassins assigned to take the other one out. It's fun to imagine what Hitchcock could have done with that script...

Friday, September 06, 2019

Spellbound (1945)

Gregory Peck stars in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller as the newly-arrived director of a mental institute, but it soon becomes clear to the head psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) that he isn't who he claims to be...

I can't honestly say it's one of my favorite of The Master's films, but it's definitely worth checking out for Hitchcock & suspense fans, especially for its justly-famous dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, topped off with a lush score by Miklos Rozsa, gorgeous B&W cinematography from George Barnes, and a pair of great stars -- who never looked more glamorous than they did when working with Hitchcock -- at the top of their game.

Friday, August 16, 2019

It Pays to Advertise (1931)

Farce comedy about the idle, rich son (Norman Foster) of a big businessman (Eugene Pallette), who decides to show his father up by starting his own company to compete with him, but gets himself in to a heap of financial trouble instead. He learns the value of good business skills in the process of getting the company back on its feet. This premise provides the framework for some very funny comic wheelings and dealings, played with good energy by the cast. Based on the play by Roi Cooper Megrue and Walter C. Hackett. The cast includes Carole Lombard as the secretary with whom the son falls in love, and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher as the wisecracking business partner. Tom Kennedy has a brief but quite funny turn as the dense and gullible landlord.

Bad Sister (1931)

A family drama about the troubled daughter (Sidney Fox) of a respected local merchant (Charles Winninger) who ditches her doctor boyfriend (Conrad Nagel) for a slick conman, and ends up getting her father involved in his fraudulent investment scheme. The cast includes a young Humphrey Bogart as the conman, and Bette Davis as the other sister. From Booth Tarkington's 1913 story "The Flirt".

Murder is My Beat (1955)

A detective, investigating the murder of a businessman, becomes obsessed with the showgirl accused of the killing. After she is convicted, the detective becomes convinced of her innocence and goes rogue in order to clear her name, plunging himself further in to a web of mystery and danger, and navigating a series of twists and turns to bring the real killer to justice.

Edgar G. Ulmer finds the poetry in the film's low-budget, B-level trappings, and tragic star Barbara Payton has her final role as the showgirl accused of murder. Loved the location shots of the cheap motel at night -- really evocative of a certain atmosphere.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Rich Man's Folly (1931)

A solid melodrama, based on Dickens' "Dombey and Son", about a shipbuilder whose obsession with having a son to carry on the family business pushes away his daughter and puts a terrible strain on the son's health, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

I love stories about the sea and the shipping business, so I was instantly drawn in to this one. The plot is high melodrama, with the family dynamics enhanced by George Bancroft's forceful performance as the father, and Frances Dee as the estranged daughter who eventually finds the love and affection she has been missing with a rival shipbuilder.

The location photography, taken at a Massachusetts shipyard, adds a great deal of authenticity and detail, particularly effective in the film's climactic scene.

Helen's Babies (1924)

Harry Burton (Edward Everett Horton) is the author of a popular book on modern child-rearing methods, who is called on to babysit his two nieces (Baby Peggy and Jean Carpenter). The problem is, Uncle Harry is a life-long bachelor and, in fact, knows nothing about raising children, so chaos predictably ensues.

This was the first of the Baby Peggy films I've seen, and I can see why she was such a big star in the early '20s. She has an undeniable screen presence and is fascinating to watch, commanding attention as she goes through extended bits of business such as trying to fit a bunch of celluloid collars back in to their box or trying to retrieve her doll dangling precariously from a tree branch

It's also fun to watch Edward Everett Horton in a silent film, knowing his distinctive voice and mannerisms that made him such a reliable and welcome presence in so many comedies of the 1930s. Based on the popular 1876 book by John Habberton.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Lonesome (1928)

A poetic city symphony and romantic drama directed by Hungarian filmmaker Paul Fejos, who was one of the European emigres who found a home at Universal Pictures at the end of the '20s. The film takes place in New York, and is a narrative exploration of urban alienation and the oppressive effects of modernity. Fejos focuses on a young man and woman -- he a factory worker, she a switchboard operator -- both of whom are individually ditched by their friends and each of whom decide to head to Coney Island for the night, where they meet and fall in love amid the bustling throng.

The majority of the film (which in total runs just over an hour) is set at Coney Island. As the boy and girl find companionship with each other, the overbearing intensity of Coney Island threatens to separate them physically. Fejos overloads every frame with hundreds of extras, tons of confetti, balloons, and other decorations. The camera never stops moving. It's really a dizzying experience. Fejos certainly captures the frantic pace of modern life in a big city, and the sense of alienation.

It's a great representation of several things going on in late silent era. It contains a strong mix of elements from the New York-set Hollywood films of that era, as well as the City Symphonies. The plot really is a trifle, and while I could accept it as a kind of "anytime, anyplace, anyone" parable, too much time is spent on the romance for me to accept it solely as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for universal experiences. But, it still has a charm and energy to it that makes a strong impression.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin

There is so much more to the story of the early American film industry than the Edison-to-Porter-to-Griffith trajectory that gets passed down in the textbooks. Joseph P. Eckhardt fills in some more of those gaps with his book "The King of the Movies", which chronicles the life and career of motion picture pioneer Siegmund Lubin (1851-1923), a Jewish German immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, setting up shop first as an optometrist and then as an all-around film producer-distributor-showman.

Lubin was one of Edison's opponents in the patent wars of the wild and woolly early days of the picture business, gaining a reputation as film pirate for illegally duping and distributing films by other producers including Georges Melies. Although Lubin later joined forces with Edison in the Motion Picture Patents Company, he struggled to be fully accepted by Edison and the other members of the group. Lubin remained something of an outsider in the film industry throughout his career, fiercely independent and stubborn by the same turn. Lubin's critics attacked the poor quality of his original productions, which were often seen to be lacking in the acting and production values of his peers, but Lubin plowed forward with production at his main base in Philadelphia, dubbed "Lubinville".

Philadelphia would remain the central hub of Lubin's cinematic empire, even as he expanded his operations, maintaining production units in different regions throughout the US including Los Angeles and Jacksonville. In addition to his role as a producer and distributor, Lubin also moved in to exhibition, opening a chain of theaters in cities across the country. An interesting story involves Lubin helping out independent producers Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille when they ran in to trouble with their inaugural production, THE SQUAW MAN, due to a technical error in the printing process. Lubin -- himself a member of the Patents Trust -- covertly aided the rival independents by devising a solution to their problem and rescuing them from personal and professional ruin. Even after joining the establishment, Lubin was still something of a maverick at heart.

Lubin would remain a major player in the industry throughout the first half of the 1910s, but changes in the industry, including those brought about by the first World War, lead to his studio closing by 1917, ending his reign as one of the important pioneers of the American film business. Little of Lubin's output survives today, as most of his films were destroyed in a horrific studio fire in 1914, thus making evaluation of his work difficult. Lubin would return to his optometry business in the final years of his life prior to his death in 1923.

Eckhardt has written an extensively-researched portrait of Lubin as a visionary who saw seemingly endless possibilities in the infant medium of motion pictures, and further expands the historical record of the formative years of the American film industry.

Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood

Too many film histories relegate the name of William Selig to a mere footnote, if he is mentioned at all. If one thing is clear, it's that the more you study film history, the more you realize there is yet to be explored.

Andrew Erish's book is an impressively-researched work that fills in many gaps in the traditional histories of the early film business, and in doing so, serves nearly as much as a history of the fledgling American film industry as it does as a biography of a major film pioneer. Selig was responsible for a number of important steps in the transition of filmmaking into a full-fledged industry. He was making films almost from the very beginning, in 1896. Originally based in Chicago, the filmmaking activities of his Selig Polyscope Company eventually expanded to Los Angeles, where he established Southern California's first permanent film studio in 1909, as well as his famous Selig Zoo. Selig also pioneered popular film genres and forms (particularly the serial) and helped establish such stars as Tom Mix and Fatty Arbuckle.

Unfortunately, most of Selig's films are lost, making re-evaluation of his work difficult, and unfairly consigning his name to relative obscurity -- not helped by the fact that he is also somewhat awkwardly positioned between the earliest inventors of cinema (Edison, Lumiere) and the next generation of moguls who often receive credit for many of Selig's contributions to the cinema.

This book is a major work that provides a much-needed re-evaluation of those contributions made by Selig, as well as painting a more complete picture of the development of the American film industry.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Suddenly (1954)

This is an excellent -- and offbeat -- crime drama. I had been looking for a movie to watch and was browsing through the selection on the Film Noir Central app on Roku late last Saturday night. I came across SUDDENLY, which is a film I've been meaning to see for quite a while, intrigued by the casting of Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden (who I'd actually forgotten was in the film until the opening credits rolled). It was made at the height of Hayden's career as a leading man in such great Film Noir pictures as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) and THE KILLING (1956), and of course, Sinatra was coming right off his Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), so this seemed like a unique chance to see two great stars working together at the top of their game.

This is one of those public domain movies that turns up on countless collections of Film Noir and crime dramas, and because of its stars, is also a familiar title on numerous Hollywood Classic collections of PD films, the kinds of collections that permeated the discount sections at stores like Best Buy or Walmart during the golden age of DVD.

Now, many of these titles have jumped over to streaming, and I'm beginning to catch up with quite a few that I'd just never gotten around to watching before on those giant DVD collections. So when SUDDENLY popped up in the queue, I decided it was time to check it out. I was in the mood for a dark thriller and something not too long, given how late I was starting the movie -- so this film, with its tight 75 minute running time, fit the bill perfectly.

Kim Charney as Peter Benson III and Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw
in SUDDENLY (1954)

Sterling Hayden stars as the sheriff, Tod Shaw, of a small town called Suddenly. It's the type of town where the sheriff knows everybody, and keeps an eye out for any suspicious strangers passing through. Shaw is romantically interested in Ellen Benson, a young widow living with her son Peter, and her father, a retired secret service agent (played with just the right touch by that great character actor James Gleason). Peter takes a liking to the sheriff, whom he sees as a father figure, but Ellen is resistant to Tod's advances, and admonishes him for buying her son a toy gun, which she doesn't want him playing with.

It seems like a pretty ordinary day in Suddenly, when the word comes over the wire that the town is due for an unexpected visit by a most extraordinary guest -- the President of the United States. But there is no time for celebration. The notice is given confidentially that Shaw must work with his local law enforcement as well as members of the Secret Service to ensure that the area surrounding the train station is secure.

Meanwhile, at the Benson home up on the hill overlooking the station, three men including John Baron (Sinatra) show up and introduce themselves as members of the FBI, alerting the family to the news of the President's pending visit, and -- because of the house's direct proximity to the station -- put the house on security lockdown until the visit is over.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the men are not who they say they are. Baron is, in fact, a psychotic war vet who has been trained as a killing machine, and now intends to put his training to use on taking out the President. Any hopes of Shaw and the Secret Service agent foiling the plot are dashed when both men come to the house as part of their security routine, and are taken hostage along with the family.

Over the course of the film, the tension builds greatly as the hour of the President's visit draws near. Adding to the dramatic effect is the exploration of Baron's twisted psychological state, and how he views this job just like any other hit that he has been paid to carry out. Ellen Benson comes to recognize Shaw's true bravery and heroic qualities, and young Peter learns the great responsibility and power that come with using a firearm. The recurring use of the clock, counting down the time until the arrival of the train and the expected showdown, reminded me of HIGH NOON (1952), in which the ever-present clocks reminded us of Sheriff Gary Cooper's pending confrontation with the outlaws who are coming in to town by train. SUDDENLY uses the element of time to create a similarly tense and suspenseful mood throughout.

I could watch Sterling Hayden in just about anything -- he's one of those great stars who is always fascinating to watch. Here, he is in the unique position of not being given a great deal of action or dialogue, but his strong screen presence keeps him central to the viewer's attention throughout.

The real standout, though, is Sinatra. He proves once again what a truly great actor he was. This is the kind of role that, in many ways, is a difficult one to play -- especially for a star of his magnitude and popularity -- because it is an almost entirely unsympathetic one. Even though the psychological aspects of his character are explored, we're never asked to pity Baron -- it's made clear that he has been transformed into a heartless, cold-blooded killer who views murder as a job. It's a bold role for a pop music star and recent Oscar winner like Sinatra to take, but it also demonstrates his versatility and talent in taking on challenging new roles, rather than resting on his laurels.

Frank Sinatra as John Baron in SUDDENLY (1954)

The curious thing about SUDDENLY is that -- for the top-tier talent involved -- it appears to have a been a pretty low-budget production. It was produced by a company called Libra Productions, and released by United Artists. The action is confined largely to the Benson house, with some location exteriors of the train station and town grocery store. The film's director, Lewis Allen, worked primarily in television, which is evident in his economic choice of shots and staging here. The music score is by David Raksin, one of the top film score composers of this era, especially with the hit theme song from the 1944 Film Noir classic LAURA.

The explosive subject matter of SUDDENLY proved, tragically, to be a little too prescient, and the film was withdrawn from circulation following the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which also resulted in its eventually slipping into the public domain (a similar fate befell Sinatra's later film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, dealing with the same subject, but that film remained under copyright and was re-released to great acclaim in the late 1980s, while SUDDENLY has remained relatively obscure). As with many films in the public domain, its lack of copyright status has meant that it often circulates in inferior copies and has not benefited from the care and preservation that it deserves. The upside to this situation is that SUDDENLY can be freely shown and, as mentioned above, it frequently turns up in collections of classic films, waiting to be discovered by new generations of movie fans.

There's so much to recommend SUDDENLY, from its tense script and gripping suspense, to its great acting turns by stars Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden. It packs a lot in to its 75 minute running time and is a great example of lean, economic but powerfully effective film making.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Guy Named Joe (1943)

Beautifully-made romantic drama about a fighter pilot (Spencer Tracy) who dies in combat and returns as a spiritual guide to a young aviator who happens to fall in love with the woman whom Tracy left behind. Directed with real sincerity and understated but powerful emotion by Victor Fleming. Tracy never hits a false note in his performance and the entire film works in large part thanks to his masterful skill.

Annie Oakley (1935)

Barbara Stanwyck as ANNIE OAKLEY (1935)
The life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley is an interesting subject for a biopic, although it's made routine and predictable with the fictionalized, imposed romance plot that drives this picture. Barbara Stanwyck is excellent in the title role, however, and brings the right mix of charm and energy to the film that helps carry it through its dull moments. The supporting cast includes Preston Foster as her sharpshooter lover, Melvyn Douglas as the "other man", and Moroni Olsen in a colorful performance as Buffalo Bill.

It's in the Bag (1945)

Adapted from Ilf and Petrov's story about a fortune hidden inside one of a set of chairs. Fred Allen is a flea circus owner who comes in to a fortune -- but he has to find it first, and sets out on a mad hunt through New York City to locate the chair containing the money. Typical of Allen's acerbic, absurdist style of comedy. Contains fun cameos including his old radio rival Jack Benny.

Monday, May 27, 2019

My Ebook "Return to the Kingdom of Shadows" is Now Available

I realize that things have been pretty quiet on this blog for the past few months. That's because I've been working on putting together my first ebook, "Return to the Kingdom of Shadows", a collection of my writing on film that I have done over the years from this blog and other outlets that I have written for. After almost 15 years of writing about film online, I decided it was time to collect a selection of my favorite writings in one place.

This book is a celebration of cinema, from the earliest experiments of Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, to the independent cinema of today. Among the pieces collected in this book are selected film reviews, essays and articles I have written for various online outlets over the years, as well as this blog. With an eye toward both film history and the new directions in which the art of cinema is continually evolving, this book is a tribute to some of my favorite films -- movies that continue to inspire and entertain.

The ebook can be purchased at Lulu, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Kobo.

I was recently interviewed by Zekefilm about my book, in which I talk about the importance of early film, studying film history, and the significance of the book's title. You can listen to the interview here.

Monday, February 25, 2019

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

In the early ‘30s, the Warner Bros. studio was establishing itself as Hollywood’s premier place for hard-edged, social realist dramas that reflected the conditions and attitudes of Depression-era America. Among these films to emerge from Warner Bros. in this period were Wild Boys of the RoadI Am a Fugitive from a Chain GangBlack Fury, and The Petrified Forest. In addition, the Depression-era wish fulfillment of the gangster films, most famously Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley, including 42nd StreetGold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, continued in this tradition of dealing with the social issues facing the nation during the Depression at the studio presided over by the pro-Roosevelt, pro-New Deal movie mogul Jack L. Warner.

Out of this milieu came 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, in 1932, a tough pre-Code drama starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in their only picture together. The screenplay was based on the novel of the same name by Warden Lewis E. Lawes. It tells the story of a high-profile, big-time New York criminal (Tracy) who is handed a stiff sentence and sent up the river. His experiences in prison are much tougher than expected, although he gradually comes to respect the stern but benevolent warden. When Tracy learns that his sweetheart, Fay (Bette Davis) is in critical condition and may not have long to live, the warden allows Tracy to take leave from the prison on the honor system and go visit Fay so that they can spend their final hours together. The situation becomes complicated when Tracy learns that it was his friend, Finn (Louis Calhern), who was responsible for his Fay’s injuries, and has plans to double-cross him.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz, who made so many pictures for Warner Bros. during the ‘30s and really had a chance to hone his craft on film after film. Here, he makes a series of interesting choices that leave an indelible impression, such as prototypical-Noirish use of shadows created by the prison bars, which create a claustrophobic and imposing effect. Another brilliant choice is the use of on-screen text, superimposed above each of the prisoners marching through the prison,indicating the number of years for which they have been sentenced. This device creates a harrowing effect by highlighting the amount of time that these men will be spending behind bars. As a result of Curtiz’s expert direction, the taut and economic storytelling and crackerjack plotting, there is not an ounce of fat on the film, not a single wasted shot or unnecessary moment.

This film offers two early starring roles for Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, who demonstrate a remarkable chemistry together. Tracy has an excellent opportunity here to display the kind of gentle, noble qualities that he would bring to all of his screen work. He has a remarkable ability to convey so much through his expressions. His subtle and understated performance achieves a totality of tone and characterization. Davis brings just the right mix of innocence and tragedy to her role as the girl Tracy loves and had to leave behind, and it’s easy to see the qualities in her performance here that would quickly make her a top star at Warner Bros.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a great example of the gritty, socially-conscious films that Warner Bros. specialized in during the ‘30s. The time was definitely right for this type of film, with the nation embroiled in the depths of the Depression, of economic hopelessness and despair. Although things would soon begin to look up thanks to FDR and his New Deal, films like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing accurately captured the mood and concerns of a nation when it was at one of its all-time low points.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Moby Dick (1930)

Second version of Herman Melville's classic novel, and the second to star John Barrymore. The story had previously been filmed in 1926 as THE SEA BEAST, also starring Barrymore as Captain Ahab.

This version makes the hunt for the whale largely a minor point, instead focusing on a romance between Barrymore and a very young Joan Bennett, and adding a rivalry between Ahab and his brother over the girl's affection. And the whole story is reduced to a 77 minute film.

There is some impressive early process photography, and what had to be some pretty expensive model work with a large-scale, submersible replica of the whale. At the climax, the maniacal Ahab scurries over the back of the whale and repeatedly jams his harpoon into it, until there is a geyser of blood shooting out and spraying all over him.

 But overall, it is a good case for preferring a "faithful adaptation" -- instead of taking such a fascinating, epic story and making it into something utterly mundane.

Main Street After Dark (1945)

A family of pickpockets (including Dan Duryea and Audrey Totter) in a small port city is targeting sailors on leave, and detective Edward Arnold leads a task force with local police to bring their operation down. More of a noticeably low-budget movie than one might expect from MGM at this time, though with a good cast and some nice art direction. With its procedural format and concluding narration, it feels like a feature-length version of one of the studio's "Crime Does Not Pay" short subjects. I do enjoy movies with this kind of dark, WWII-era atmosphere.

The Merry Widow (1934)

High-class, glossy adaptation of the Lehar operetta directed with typically brilliant style by Ernst Lubitsch. The plot itself is a confectionery trifle but Lubitsch elevates it to the level of high art with his brilliant guiding hand, and the full resources of the mighty MGM behind him. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are utterly charming as Danilo and Sonia, and there are many welcome appearances from such familiar faces as Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, George Barbier, Minna Gombell, Donald Meek and a host of other fine players.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

Stirring action-adventure drama of the air, about the experiences of a group of British WWI aviators and the impossibly dangerous missions they must risk their lives for. Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are the two close friends and fellow aviators whose friendship is tested after Barthelmess is promoted to flight commander and sends Fairbanks' kid brother off on a mission from which he never returns. 

Hawks's direction keeps the pace tight and his masterful handling of the action scenes is filled with vigor and delivers some real thrills. The aerial battle scenes are some of the best of their kind ever filmed. 

AKA Flight Commander

Saturday, February 09, 2019

The Wind (1928)

One of those glorious silent films that I was introduced to through Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's HOLLYWOOD series years ago.

Lillian Gish stars in one of her most stunning and brilliant performances as Letty Mason, a young woman from Virginia who travels west to live with an old family friend and finds herself plunged in to the wild, untamed landscape of the prairie with its relentless, driving, howling winds. The wind threatens to slowly drive Letty mad as she struggles to adapt and survive in this harsh new environment and to come to terms with her feelings about the man she has married.

This merciless, unforgiving environment becomes a character in its own right. Exterior scenes were filmed on location under extremely difficult conditions of sweltering heat and wind provided by a bank of airplane propellers. Gish oversaw every aspect of the film, choosing the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom to helm the production, and acclaimed Swedish star Lars Hanson as her leading man.

One of the truly great American silent films. See the Photoplay restoration with an inspired score by Carl Davis.

Directed by Victor Sjostrom. Written by Frances Marion from the novel by Dorothy Scarborough. Photographed by John Arnold. Released by MGM, 1928. With Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Stan and Ollie (2019)

Saw the wonderful STAN AND OLLIE today. It really captures the warm spirit of their comedy through the fine performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.

I loved the re-creations of scenes from their films and music hall tours, which had me laughing harder than anything I've seen in theaters for a long time.

Some of the imposed dramatic conflict feels forced and a little too convenient, but this is a minor criticism.

The films of Laurel and Hardy mean more to me than any others, and I thoroughly enjoyed this loving and affectionate tribute to the team. It will bring up a lot of great memories for long-time Laurel and Hardy fans and hopefully help introduce some new viewers to their timeless comedy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Pearl White

One of the first major stars of the American cinema when the film industry was still based on Fort Lee, NJ. She became an internationally-famous star in over 200 films and established her legacy as an American film pioneer and a true immortal of the silver screen, all without ever setting foot in Hollywood.

She starred in many serials including The Perils of Pauline (1914), The Exploits of Elaine (1914-1915), The New Exploits of Elaine (1915), The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Iron Claw (1916), Pearl of the Army (1916-1917), The Fatal Ring (1917), The House of Hate (1918), The Lightening Raider (1919) and The Black Secret (1919-1920).

Following her successful screen career in America, White re-located to Paris, acting on stage & film and investing in resorts, casinos and real estate. After becoming involved with Greek businessman Theodore Cossika, the two moved to Cairo and spent much time traveling through Asia and the Middle East. Rumors of a screen comeback never materialized, likely due in part due to failing health, as she passed in 1938 at the age of 49.

Her starring role in the iconic Perils of Pauline and her status as one of the world's first internationally-famous movie stars cemented her legacy as one of the true immortals of the silver screen.