There’s nothing on the books that says that a “classic” has to have been liked much when it first came out. In fact, enormous swaths of what we now revere as America’s film heritage are comprised of what were flops on their first outing.
Take, for example, the Cary Grant- Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy Holiday by George Cukor (TCM is running it in the middle of the night this coming Monday–set your DVRs!). Right there, in that one sentence, I’ve probably already sold you on the merits of this picture.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 16, 2014
Albert Lewin is an elusive figure in the history of Hollywood. He was an educated aesthete with a B.A. from NYU and a M.A. from Harvard who took a job as a script reader at Samuel Goldwyn studios. He swiftly rose through the ranks after Goldwyn was absorbed by MGM, and he was one of the five “Thalberg Men” who facilitated the studios success, overseeing hits like Spawn of the North and Mutiny on the Bounty. When not overseeing super productions, Lewin directed six unusual features, almost all about artistically inclined loners enmeshed in a debilitating obsession. His most famous film is his 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. It is a startlingly controlled production, from Hurd Hatfield’s evocatively blank lead performance to the deep focus photography of DP Harry Stradling, which gives ample space for Gray’s emptiness to expand.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 2, 2014
By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition, just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 27, 2014
Alfred Hitchcock hopes you’ll tune into TCM Friday afternoon when they’ll be airing a batch of his films that you can enjoy with your Thanksgiving leftovers.
Happy Thanksgiving! Like many Americans, I’ve been busy this week planning and preparing a holiday feast for my family. With this in mind, I thought I’d share an abundance of Thanksgiving themed publicity photos featuring classic Hollywood stars. Some are sexy pin-up style pictures or imaginative publicity stills while others showcase beloved and admired actors cooking at home or just enjoying their own holiday feast. Enjoy!
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 20, 2014
I’ve always liked Rod Taylor. The broad shouldered, barrel-chested actor with a booming voice is intimidating on screen but there’s a warmth in his smile that’s undeniably inviting. He was universally good in every film genre he took part in and made the challenging transition from serious drama to action movies, thrillers and romantic comedies seem effortless. He was at home in military fatigues or a three piece suit and that breadth and depth of character makes him extremely fun to watch. Tonight TCM viewers can tune in and catch Taylor in a few of his best films including THE BIRDS (1963), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), DARK OF THE SUN (1968), SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963) and HOTEL (1967) so it seemed like a good time to share some of the interesting facts I recently discovered about him after reading Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood. Stephen Vagg’s 2010 book is typical of most movie star biographies and provides a general overview of Taylor’s career as well as his personal life. I didn’t know much about the Australian born actor beforehand so it was an eye-opening read that gave me a new appreciation for Taylor as well as the film’s he appeared in.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 18, 2014
Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good? (1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 16, 2014
Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I take note of films that bother to put us on the map. I’m also a sucker for humanist studies of working class drifters or other misfits who seek salvation outside of the traditional institutions of marriage and family. Small surprise, then, that I’d be a fan of Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973). I first saw the film at the Telluride Film Festival a few years ago, but last year it received a wider revival thanks to a digital restoration commemorating its 40th year anniversary. Gene Hackman (who worked opposite of Al Pacino on the film) has cited it as his favorite role, because it was the only film that he ever made that allowed him to work in absolute continuity that allowed him “to take all kinds of chances and really build my character.” Odd to think now that this buddy film was originally intended for Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon, and who is to say what kind of film that would have been? All I can say in retrospect is that Hackman and Pacino shine in a way that makes it hard to picture anyone else in the title roles of, respectively, Max Millan and Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 13, 2014
When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks, one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 11, 2014
UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 4, 2014
Though Halloween has passed, it is still possible to watch horror movies. It’s quite pleasant, too, not being harangued about the best one “you’ve never seen” every other mouse click. I celebrated this freedom from list fascism by attending a twelve hour horror movie marathon at Anthology Film Archives on November 1st. It was an eclectic selection that ranged through low-budget Mexican vampires, classy British omnibus films, and schlocky AIP giant rat attacks. The title that stuck in my cranium and asked to be dispatched in this space is the 1977 Canadian survival horror obscurity Rituals (aka The Creeper). A post-Deliverance male bonding death march starring Hal Holbrook, it pits a group of alcoholic doctors against a psychically damaged ex-soldier in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The film relentlessly strips away the men’s defenses until they are physically and emotionally bare, live nerve endings that become easy targets for the almost entirely unseen soldier. In their profession the doctors have made mistakes, often tragic ones, and their medical ethics loom large when they are forced to deal with their own mortality. The only decent home video version is an out-of-print DVD from Code Red, but it’s well worth tracking down.
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