Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

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Happy, Yes, But Not So Lucky

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

Several years ago, I can’t remember quite when, I saw Mike Leigh’s first work, Secrets & Lies (1996), and I was more than a little fascinated with how the movie felt. I didn’t see it in its original release, hence not knowing for sure when I saw it, but it felt different than most anything else I was seeing. It had a solid construction to it but a feeling of absolute looseness as well.  It didn’t feel as free-flowing and stream of consciousness as a Robert Altman film but it didn’t feel as utterly standard as so much else either. Later, when I saw his extraordinary Topsy-Turvy (1999), I was hooked. Here was a director who gathered together his actors with an idea and story outline and worked for weeks with improvisations as a solid plot started to make itself known. In part because of that, his films never feel like they’re headed in any obvious direction, even if they are headed towards something climactic. Later, I saw Happy Go Lucky (2008) and wasn’t disappointed. It’s reception at the end of the year, however, shocked me.

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They Don’t Make Stars Like. . . Well, You Know the Rest

THE LOVE GODDESSES, from left: Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, 1965

Recently, I re-visited the extraordinary stars of the past by viewing The Love Goddesses (1965), a documentary streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. Directed by Saul J. Turell, this little-known documentary traces the popularity of female stars as a barometer of America’s attitude toward sex and romance throughout the decades. Though I found the connections between the stars and America’s sexual mores too reductive, the clips of the famous, the not-so famous and the infamous were irresistible.

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Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

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Ingrid Bergman, a Legend in Any Language

EUROPA '51 (1952)

Chances are any film lovers worth their salt encountered Ingrid Bergman at a fairly early age, most likely through her iconic role in Casablanca (1942) or her trio of films for Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and the black sheep of the trio (and the only one in saturated Technicolor), Under Capricorn (1949). One of the most prominent and popular of the many European émigrés who transformed Hollywood before and during World War II, she is also perhaps the most fascinating example of someone bridging the often peculiar relationship between the Old World and Tinseltown.

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Blood in the Water: The Shallows (2016)

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The Shallows is a disappearing breed – the mid-budget Hollywood hit. Made for $17 million and grossing $118 million worldwide, it is the kind of efficient thriller that studios were once able to crank out on the regular. But now in the age of branded universe nine-figure blockbusters it is treated as an anomaly, and entertainment reporters have dutifully sought reasons for The Shallows’ success, whether in Blake Lively’s social media numbers (11.6 million Instagram followers!) or savvy marketing partnerships with Buzzfeed et al. One compelling argument, via Scott Mendelson’s prescient preview at Forbes, is that ” in a summer filled with sequels and franchise installments, The Shallows looks and feels outright revolutionary by virtue of its small scale and (comparatively) small stakes. It’s about Blake Lively, who gets attacked by a shark while surfing and must fight to survive. That’s it. No world-building, no sequel set-up, no planet-in-peril finale, no Easter eggs.” It is a film that can be taken on its own terms, anchored by an intense central performance from Lively in a film hammered together by Hollywood’s premier genre problem-solver Jaume Collet-Serra. With financial and production limitations, the most heinous shark violence occurs off-screen, registered by Lively’s expressively weathered reaction shots, implying horrors beyond imagining.

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Other Gold Diggers of 1933: Girl Missing (1933)

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

blog42ndMy favorite days of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars are those devoted to character actors, neglected stars, or actors whose careers were limited to one genre—sort of, the forgotten and forsaken of film history. It’s not that these actors were not famous, established, or major stars in their day, but to today’s audiences, they lack the iconic recognition of Golden Age favorites like Bogart, Tracy, Ball, or Davis. If it weren’t for TCM, the forgotten and forsaken would be lost to time.

Case in point: Ask most people to name a Ruby Keeler film, and the response would be, “Who?” Even movie lovers know her only from a handful of Warner Bros. musicals, specifically 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. I confess I knew very little about her: I have seen her Depression-era musicals, I remembered that she was married to Al Jolson, and I recalled that she had an amazing comeback in the early 1970s when she starred on Broadway in No, No Nanette.

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Opiate of the Masses: Silk Stockings (1957)

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s penultimate leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.
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Fay Wray: The Clairvoyant (1934)

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“When Fay Wray was a child she wasn’t permitted to scream because her throat muscles were delicate and it was feared her voice would be ruined. When she grew up she screamed her way to fame in horror pictures!” – from a 1934 issue of Hollywood magazine

TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars celebration is underway and today Hollywood’s first ‘Scream Queen’ gets her due. Fay Wray was an independent actress who operated outside the star system and refused to sign a long-term contract, which allowed her to work with many Hollywood studios. Despite her best efforts to carve out a distinct identity as a free agent, she was typecast as a horror starlet after appearing in Doctor X (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and King Kong (1933), which cemented her scream queen moniker.

Following the huge success of King Kong, Wray was inundated by proposals to appear in more horror films and thrillers but she was tired of being pigeonholed. In an effort to dodge expectations, she accepted an offer from Gainsborough Pictures in England to costar with Claude Rains (fresh off the set of The Invisible Man; 1933) in an unusual film called The Clairvoyant (1934). Wray, eager to make dramas and comedies, apparently thought the film would broaden her acting opportunities but when her plane landed in the U.K., she was greeted by BBC reporters who immediately asked her to scream for them. Despite Wray’s best efforts to change the trajectory of her career, The Clairvoyant is actually an interesting addition to her horror résumé and you can catch it airing on TCM today. It’s also currently available on TCM On Demand.

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