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September 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean and Clara, Bombshell and It

Coming up on Friday on TCM is a delightful pre-Code screwball comedy called Bombshell. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it this time around since it is at once a zippy, aggressively paced comedy with one of early film’s most glamorous comediennes, while also being a sharp-edged and angry satire about Hollywood power dynamics and women’s sexuality. It is also an M.C. Escher-like knot of in-jokes and life-imitating-art-imitating life self-referential whorls. It is a bubbly, bitter comedy emerging from the intersection of two great comediennes, whose earthy sexuality was both their ticket to stardom and their downfall; two women whose careers were tragically destroyed before they reached the age of 30 but who managed in that short window of time to permanently etch their names and memories into pop culture posterity. You’ll be hard-pressed to identify 90 minutes of celluloid that accomplishes more than this.

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KEYWORDS: Bombshell (1933), CLara Bow, It, Jean Harlow
COMMENTS: 3
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In a Frame: Out of the Past (1947)

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Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.

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Unfollowing The Golden Rule: Good Sam (1948)

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation - Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

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Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!

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Carole Lombard will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up on Sunday, August 11th.

While pursuing my personal interest in local history here in Napa I was pleasantly surprised to discover how one of my favorite funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited California’s Wine Country in 1939 to star in Garson Kanin’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). This notable RKO production was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicled a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple-minded Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, mingled with locals and befriended some well-heeled residents who still fondly recall family stories about encountering the lovely Lombard.

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Forgotten 1970s: To Find a Man (1972)

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The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.

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Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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Summer Reading Suggestions

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Like many people, I tend to do a lot of reading when the weather warms up and with summer officially about to start on June 21st I thought it would be a good time to share some of the books I’ve been enjoying with my fellow film buffs. My own tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic but I hope readers of all types and stripes will find something that piques their interest when pursuing my list of Summer Reading Suggestions.

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June 14, 2014
David Kalat
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Marilyn Monroe 2.0

Don Murray got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his part in Bus Stop (airing on TCM in just a couple of days).

Were they trying to make Marilyn Monroe go insane?

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KEYWORDS: Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe
COMMENTS: 10
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“The World’s Most Beautiful Animal!”

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Ava Gardner in a publicity shot for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)
Airing on TCM June 1st.

Ava Gardner makes one of my favorite film entrances of all time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), which airs on TCM June 1st. If you want to kick off the new month with a bang I highly recommend making time for this verbose Technicolor-noir that critiques Hollywood excess and the powerful studio system that frequently exploited its stars. Mankiewicz’s film is a heady brew of CITIZEN KANE (1941), LAURA (1944), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and the director’s own ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) shot with abundant style by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It dramatically depicts the rise and fall of Maria Vargas aka “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” (Ava Gardner), a seductive Latin dancer and renowned beauty who is discovered in a Madrid nightclub and carted off to Hollywood where stardom awaits. Her fascinating story is told in flashbacks by the men who knew her and begins in a rain soaked cemetery where our chief narrator, veteran director and recovering alcoholic Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), is attending Maria’s funeral.

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Bad Movie Mothers We Love to Hate

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TCM is celebrating Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 11th) with a great program of classic films showcasing notable mothers. While looking over Sunday’s line-up I was surprised to spot NOW, VOYAGER (1942), which features Gladys Cooper as the incredibly cold and domineering mother of Bette Davis. Cooper won an Oscar nomination for her memorable performance and went on to play another overbearing mother in SEPARATE TABLES (1958) who torments poor Deborah Kerr. While considering Gladys Cooper’s portrayal of two heartless mothers I started thinking about other horrible movie moms that I’ve enjoyed watching over the years. Many good actresses have portrayed nurturing mothers who treasure their children but it takes incredible range, a lot of skill and a strong backbone to portray the kind of rotten mother that Gladys Cooper was so apt at playing. In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to pay tribute to a few of my other favorite bad movie moms. These women would never be nominated for a Mother of the Year Award but a few of them were nominated for an Academy Award.

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