Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 28, 2015
In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.
William Powell the unflappable. That was his screen persona—memorialized in the likes of The Thin Man. He had a voice like single malt Scotch and a suave manner somehow equal parts immensely cultured and rough. In the glory days of 1930s romantic comedies, he was a king. William Powell was the 1930s equivalent of Fonzie. He was untouchably cool.
On screen, that is. No man is ever really so unmoved. And in 1938, the off-screen William Powell was in personal and professional turmoil. The love of his life, Jean Harlow, died tragically of renal failure at the age of 26. Still reeling from grief at this loss, Powell found his contract at MGM, the studio that practically made him a star, over. He was adrift, in more ways than one—but he would be called on to put on a happy face for the cameras to play opposite French actress Annabella in her American debut for a one-off romantic comedy made at 20th Century Fox. Almost immediately after completing the film, Powell would be diagnosed with cancer, and spend most of the next two years fighting for his life. That The Baroness and the Butler is even watchable is a testament to Powell’s professionalism. (Watch it tonight on TCM, or use the spiffy new TCM app to stream it at your leisure)
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 7, 2015
In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects. I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 30, 2015
When I have an empty afternoon to kill, I go to the movies. This past Saturday my hours were filled to bursting with the “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” series at MoMA, which runs through August 5th. The way the schedule fell, my matinees were made up of MGM’s frothy swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952) and the kindly circus folk of 20th Century Fox’s Chad Hanna (1940), with the prime evening slot held by the dark, violent Universal-International Western, Apache Drums (1952). This is a series after my own heart, a 60+ feature cavalcade of movies classic and obscure from 1922 – 1955, all exhibited on film (a rarer and rarer pleasure). My random sampling spanned two decades, three genres, and a variety of approaches to Technicolor. Scaramouche is all gleaming candy colors — you are almost invited to go up and lick the screen. Chad Hanna and Apache Drums are more subdued in their palettes, both making use of darkness and chiaroscuro to capture folds in upstate New York circus tents and candlelight in a Southwestern church under siege, respectively.
In the mid-sixties, United Productions of America’s Henry Saperstein went shopping for high quality monster movies for North American distribution. Toho Studios shared with Hammer Studios in England the reputation of producing a steady supply of monster movies with a consistent level of quality. Choosing to deal with Toho rather than Hammer, Saperstein eventually won the confidence of Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.
Saperstein’s involvement began with Frankenstein Conquers the World, which was then already in preproduction, and continued for years—on to the likes of War of the Gargantuas, and later Godzilla’s Revenge and Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Monster Zero would be Saperstein’s first full-fledged co-production, and boy is it a doozy. (Check it out Sunday the 28th for yourself)
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 25, 2015
You can catch Arlene Dahl in a number of films airing on TCM in July:
Arlene Dahl was a stunning redhead and a capable actress who I’ve enjoyed watching in a number of films including REIGN OF TERROR (1949), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949), WOMAN’S WORLD (1954) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). However, her most successful career was in the multibillion-dollar beauty industry where she started as a syndicated columnist offering advice on dieting, plastic surgery, make-up, fashion and the latest hairstyling trends. By 1954 she was managing her own line of lingerie and cosmetics under the Arlene Dahl Enterprises banner and in 1965 she published her first of many books titled Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity. Dahl’s book capitalized on her Hollywood credentials and dished out beauty tips along with suggestions on how women could best attract and keep their men.
With the women’s movement on the rise and the sexual revolution bubbling loudly under the surface of polite society, the mid-sixties was a challenging time. Especially for women like Arlene Dahl who had accepted her place, no matter how begrudgingly, in a society that often treated her like a second-class citizen. And although she had admirably managed to create a successful business for herself at a time when American women still weren’t allowed to get an Ivy League education, Dahl makes it clear in Always Ask a Man that she was no bra burning radical. Her antiquated ideas about womanhood are supported, and in some cases weakened, by a surprising number of male actors who are quoted throughout her book. These beloved film figures, including Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Richard Burton and Burt Lancaster, freely offered their thoughts on femininity and beauty to Arlene Dahl, which she undoubtedly hoped would help sell her book and boost her arguments. 50-years-later, many of the actor’s casual comments are cringe-inducing reminders of a bygone era while others are more thoughtful and enduring. As history, particularly Hollywood history, their observations on women in 1965 makes for fascinating reading so I decided to collect some of the more provocative quotes and share them here.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 23, 2015
After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 16, 2015
After the success of Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne was in demand. While still under contract to poverty row Republic Studios, he was lent out to United Artists for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Universal for Seven Sinners (1940) and Paramount for The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). While still making interesting features for Republic, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he was positioning himself as prestige-picture ready. Shepherd of the Hills was a prime property adapted from a million-selling novel, to be shot in Technicolor by director Henry Hathaway and DPs Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene. Hathaway was an advocate for location shooting, and had already filmed Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) in Technicolor at Big Bear Lake in California, where Shepherd would end up as well. The ongoing “Glorious Technicolor” series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening both Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills as part of its sixty feature extravaganza. Shepherd is a delicate, strange and mournful drama of the breakdown of an insular Ozark Mountain community, one trapped in a cycle of intergenerational violence. John Wayne stars alongside his childhood Western hero Harry Carey, and the film acts as a series of lessons from Carey to Wayne, on and off screen.
Back when I started my endless ramblings about the transition from silent slapstick to screwball comedies, I led by singling out Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp as a fulcrum point where screwball becomes imperative. So it’s time to come back to Harry Langdon, and indulgently celebrate what made him so gloriously awesome, even if his style of comedy was unsustainable over the long run. Harry, this one’s for you.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 11, 2015
Horror fans received a double blow this week. It started with the news that Richard Johnson (1927-2015) had died and today we woke up to the news that Christopher Lee (1922-2015), arguably the last of the great classic horror film icons, had shuffled off this mortal coil to join his old pal Peter Cushing in repose.
Both Lee and Johnson worked in a variety of film genres and played remarkably similar roles throughout their careers including soldiers, kings, adventure seekers, fortune hunters, cops, criminals, doctors, professors, investigators, government spies and spy villains. But for myself and many others, it is their distinct body of work in horror films that has made the most impact and will undoubtedly survive them for many decades to come.
Before learning about Lee’s passing I was preparing a written tribute to Richard Johnson, which you’ll find below, but I couldn’t possibly let Lee’s death go unmentioned. He remains one of my favorite performers and a giant among men both figuratively and literally. The tall, dark and strikingly handsome actor will undoubtedly receive many well-deserved accolades today and in the weeks to come but I hope you’ll make time to watch TCM’s touching video tribute.
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