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May 23, 2015
David Kalat
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Lana Turner, the Careless Cinderella

“One of the dullest towns in America is the dreary community of Hotchkiss Falls in the mid-Hudson Valley. The odds are 1000 to 1 against our finding anyone there with an interesting story. However that’s where we are, so let’s take a look around.”

Screwball comedies generally came in one of two flavors. The Heiress On the Run, as the name implies, presented rich girls fleeing their lives of privilege to take up with working-class men (see It Happened One Night, Next Time I Marry, Lady in a Jam, My Man Godfrey, Holiday). The Cinderella Story is also self-descriptive: a destitute and desperate girl is mistaken for a rich debutante, pampered by an older Sugar Daddy, and ultimately takes her place among the social set (see Easy Living, Midnight, and Fifth Avenue Girl, and Ruggles of Red Gap is a gender-reversed variant).

But once, the world of screwball combined these two flavors: Slightly Dangerous is both an Heiress on the Run film and a Cinderella Story, and it gives us a chance to dig into what made these two screwball subgenres work.

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KEYWORDS: Lana Turner, Robert Young, Screwball Comedy, Slightly Dangerous
COMMENTS: 3
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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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May 16, 2015
David Kalat
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Ginger Rogers: Sad Sacks of Fifth Avenue

Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…

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KEYWORDS: Fifth Avenue Girl, Ginger Rogers, Gregory La Cava, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 3
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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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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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Cooking with Sophia Loren

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Next Tuesday (April 21st) TCM is celebrating the illustrious career of Sophia Loren with a tribute that includes three important TCM premieres beginning with the first U.S. television screening of HUMAN VOICE (La voce umana, 2014). This bittersweet 25-minute film is directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, and is based on the iconic Jean Cocteau play about a woman whose final telephone conversation with her lover reflects her despair over losing him. This is followed by THE GOLD OF NAPLES (L’oro di Napoli, 1954), an anthology that gave Loren one of her first starring roles; and the saucy comedy drama MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (1964), made at the height of her reign as a leading screen goddess.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are the times I spent visiting with my Italian nonna or as I affectionately called her, “Nana.” Nana was my great grandmother who was born in the Piedmont region of Italy and arrived in America around 1915 when she was a young woman. Nana never learned how to speak fluid English and preferred her native tongue, which sounded like pure poetry to me. Unfortunately, this meant we couldn’t communicate very well due to my lack of Italian language skills but her warm eyes and welcoming smile spoke volumes. I can vividly remember watching Nana cook Italian meals for large family gatherings and the smells coming from her kitchen were always intoxicating. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my great grandmother was a culinary artist and she taught many of the women in my family how to cook as well, including my own mother who learned how to make some great Italian meals thanks to Nana’s expertise. My great grandmother passed away long before I became interested in cooking but I often wish she was still around to offer me some tips. Instead, I’ve had to rely on cookbooks and cooking shows to learn the ins and outs of Italian cooking and I’ve recently found myself turning to the lovely Sophia Loren for advice. Loren is one of my favorite actresses and the curvaceous Italian beauty also happens to be an accomplished cook who wrote a number of successful cookbooks.
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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Kind Lady

ethelopeningEver since reading Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore by his comrade in revelry, Gene Fowler, I have been fascinated with the Barrymore family. Handsome, tragic John has become my favorite Barrymore, because he was so flawed and yet so talented. Equally talented but not flawed was his older sister Ethel Barrymore. Next Saturday, February 28, at 9:15am, Ethel stars in Kind Lady, part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming.

Before noting Barrymore’s contribution, I would be remiss if I did not mention Kind Lady’s narrative pedigree. Originally a short story by Hugh Walpole titled “The Silver Casket,” it was turned into a beloved stage play by Edward Chodorov in 1935. The first film version was released in 1936 and starred Basil Rathbone as Elcott and Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Herries. The screenplay for the 1951 version, which was credited to Chodorov, Jerry Davis, and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, made changes to the original material. Characters were eliminated to streamline the story, a key murder was moved toward the end of the film, and an exciting climactic sequence was added (a Hitchcockian approach). The film was aided enormously by the direction of John Sturges, who has earned a place in the history books for his widescreen, Technicolor films that exploited spectacular outdoor settings (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Released in 1951, Kind Lady is a black-and-white thriller with a claustrophobic set, but Sturges seemed equally adept within these perimeters. He milked the limited setting to its full advantage to create tension while adding visual interest through camera movement.

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February 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.

That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.

None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.

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KEYWORDS: Betty Grable, Preston Sturges, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend
COMMENTS: 4
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February 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball Part 1: Sturges before Sturges

Jean Arthur is a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion.

No, Jean Arthur is an actress, and in the movie Easy Living she plays a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion, but let’s not get bogged down in such hairsplitting. In any event, she barely holds that job and is fired early in the film. It wasn’t much of a job anyway–the harridan spinsters who policed that magazine must have been insufferable coworkers.

But it paid the rent. Well, no it didn’t–she’s behind in her $7 a week rent when we first meet her, and has only a single dime for her bus fare, so it’s not like the job was some fabulous boondoggle. But things are tough all over–haven’t you heard there’s a Depression on? Of course, if times are so tough, how to explain the fur coat that just dropped out of the sky onto her head?

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KEYWORDS: Easy Living, Jean Arthur, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges
COMMENTS: 6
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December 20, 2014
David Kalat
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If we took a holiday / Took some time to celebrate

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.

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KEYWORDS: Cary Grant, George Cukor, Holiday, Katharine Hepburn
COMMENTS: 6
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