A Man and a Maid: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

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In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.

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The Show Must Go On: 42nd Street (1933)

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When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.

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Fighting Spirit: Kung Fu Killer (2015) and Skin Trade (2015)

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The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars.  Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA (click for showtimes near you), it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.

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Orson Welles at One Hundred

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Part man, part myth and part mystery. 100 years after his birth, Orson Welles remains a towering figure in cinema history and a difficult character to pin down. Welles’ immeasurable talents, larger than life personality and elusive nature along with the countless unfinished projects he left behind have made him a favorite subject of filmmakers, historians, writers and film enthusiasts who’ve worked tirelessly to keep Hollywood’s enfant terrible in the spotlight since his death in 1985. Throughout the month of May, TCM is taking up the torch and placing Welles in their popular Friday Night Spotlight hosted by film critic David Edelstein. For the next 5 weeks, viewers will be able to see Welles’ most revered and beloved films including CITIZEN KANE (1941), THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), THE STRANGER (1946), A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), MR. ARKADIN (1962), THE TRIAL (1963), OTHELLO (1952) and MACBETH (1948) as well as many films that Welles appeared in such as THE THIRD MAN (1949), JANE EYRE (1944) , THE V.I.P.S. (1963) and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966). Subscribers will also get to enjoy the debut of the director’s silent comedy, TOO MUCH JOHNSON (1938) and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1967), which Welles considered to be his finest work.

In celebration of Orson Welles’ Centennial, I thought I would take a look ahead and highlight some of the events that are being planned to honor the man as well as the various new books, DVD and Blu-ray releases that will become available in the coming months. Welles’ fans like myself will be able to indulge in a variable smorgasbord of cinematic treats in 2015 that should satisfy his most ardent admirers and even intrigue the most weary Welles’ skeptics.

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Horseplay: Black Midnight (1949)

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In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall  – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.

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Classic Movie Star Museums: A Travel Guide

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Next month marks the grand opening of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa. During the last 30 years more than one million visitors have reportedly journeyed to Winterset to tour the small house where Wayne was born on May 26, 1907 but now fans of the much beloved movie star will be able to enjoy a brand new 5,000 square facility built alongside Wayne’s original home. The museum features the largest collection of John Wayne memorabilia in existence including original movie posters, film costumes, props, scripts, photos, personal letters, original artwork, sculptures, a customized automobile and a movie theater where visitors can enjoy a documentary about Wayne and watch his films. The grand opening will take place between May 22-24 and includes a ribbon cutting ceremony presented by Scott Eyman (author of John Wayne: The Life and the Legend), a rodeo show and a guest appearance from actor, rodeo competitor and politician Chris Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son) who appeared with Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971). Color me impressed! I think it’s encouraging to see small towns like Winterset celebrating their film history. For more information, please visit their official website: John Wayne Birthplace Museum

In light of this news, I started thinking about other smaller museums outside of Hollywood dedicated to preserving the memory of classic movie stars. I follow some of them on Twitter and occasionally try to share information about their fundraising efforts but now that spring’s arrived and many of us are starting to plan summer vacations I thought I’d put together a list of the small hometown museums that have sprung up across the U.S. honoring their local celebrities. It should be of interest to classic film fans who are planning a road trip soon or it just might surprise someone who unknowingly has a museum dedicated to a Hollywood personality in their own backyard.

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Organization Man: Odd Man Out (1947)

4082_odd_man_out_(1947)movie_Odd Man Out has an absence at its center. It stars James Mason as a revolutionary in Northern Ireland, but he is either missing or comatose for the majority of its running time. A scattered group of fringe players search for his body, from IRA fellow travelers to middle-class families to eccentric bird merchants. What emerges is a portrait of a stunned post-WWII Belfast, tired of violence but in no hurry to pass Mason off to the cops. It is either sympathy or indolence that keeps him alive, as his husk is passed from alley to bar and finally, to the docks. The city’s cavernous, emptied out streets are the setting for Mason’s absolution. For though he is a murderer, Mason’s beatific, radiant performance gives his character a saintly aura, as if taking on the sins of the post-war world. Though it has overshadowed the lower-budgeted Brit-noirs of this period (which are in need of reclamation), Odd Man Out is more than worthy of its reputation. Earlier this month it received the Criterion treatment, released in a new HD restoration on DVD and Blu-ray, with their usual array of copious extras, including a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

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On the Town: TCM Classic Film Tour of NYC

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I am constitutionally opposed to guided tours. I am slow and stubborn, preferring to linger, wander and find my own path rather than walk down the pre-determined route laid down by an unfamiliar mind. In my particular mania I’d prefer to be ignorant in my own way than knowledgeable as determined by another. So I tend to avoid all tours, by bus, by foot, or by dirigible. I have been married to a ghost tour operator for almost ten years now, and still have managed to hold my illogical ground. Until now, anyway, when along with my wife, I took the TCM Classic Film Tour, a three-hour guided bus ride around Manhattan, operated by On Location Tours in concert with TCM. Yes, this is a review of a TCM branded tour on a TCM site, so feel free to read the rest of this review with a raised eyebrow, though the following thoughts are indeed  my own. I went in skeptical, but I was happy to discover it did not pander to popular taste but attempts to present the full scope of NYC film history, from Edison to film noir and up through (no comment) You’ve Got Mail.

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Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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Uninvited Guest: Stranger at my Door (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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