Orson Welles, The Immortal Story (1968), and Television

The Immortal Story (1968) directed by Orson Welles shown: Orson Welles

To view The Immortal Story click here.

In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles was often derisive towards television, or at least he was in the 1960s. Back then, television hadn’t reached the levels of sophistication it has today and someone like Welles couldn’t see how leaving film for TV could ever be a viable move. Of course, it should be noted that he and Bogdanovich also have a lengthy discussion about the only aspects of color film they like (how snow photographs being near the top) so it’s fair to say that no matter how inventive and ahead of the curve Welles was most of the time, there was clearly a limit to his vision. In 1968 he adapted Isaak Dineson’s The Immortal Story for French television and, clocking in at just 60 minutes, with an economy and efficiency of an expert old hand, shows that perhaps Welles and TV may have been the best match of all.

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The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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To view The Man Who Knew Too Much click here.

Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

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To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

To view Losing Ground click here.

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

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Lost (and Found) in Translation: Anna Karina and A Woman is a Woman (1961)

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To view A Woman is a Woman click here.

Anna Karina was discovered in the classic sense, as in someone saw her at a café and offered her a modeling job. The kind of discovery people with dreams of stardom long for but rarely see. She became a successful model and due to her appearance in a series of ads for Palmolive, came to the attention of director Jean-Luc Godard. This led to her first released film with him (Le Petit Soldat [1963] was the first she made with him but it wasn’t released until three years later), Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman), and it made her a star. She did a lot of work afterwards, with Godard and others, but that role was the one that instantly, and forever, won me over.

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The Art of the Transition: TV to Movies

Norma Rae (1979) Directed by Martin Ritt Shown: Sally Field

To view Norma Rae click here.

Not too long ago, television actors were of an entirely different class among professional actors. There were stage actors at the top, movie actors next tier down, then at the bottom were the TV folks. It’s not that they weren’t talented, they were and everyone recognized it. Early television stars like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason weren’t just beloved, they were extolled and awarded for their boundless talents. But that didn’t mean they could become movie stars. Lucille Ball had been a second-tier actress with the studios before her television success and after it, couldn’t get much farther. Gleason had some critical success on film, garnering an Oscar nomination for The Hustler in 1961, but was never able to build a successful comedy career on the silver screen that matched his success on television, except perhaps for The Smokey and the Bandit franchise (1977, 1980, 1983). Dramatic actors had it easier. George C. Scott found success on the stage, then movies where he earned two Oscar nominations (one for Anatomy of a Murder [1959], and one for The Hustler with Gleason), before moving to television drama with East Side/West Side (1963-1964) and getting an Emmy nomination. Then he effortlessly moved back to film with Dr. Strangelove (1964) and inexplicably didn’t get nominated. But in the 1970s, when I was first beginning my serious study of the cinema, three actors broke down the wall that held back the comedians, starting with Art Carney and finishing up with Sally Field.

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Bathe Your Eyes in Forever Amber (1947)

FOREVER AMBER, from left: George Sanders, Linda Darnell, Alan Napier, 1947, TM & Copyright © 20th

To view Forever Amber click here.

Now here’s a film with three of my favorite things from 1940s movies: Linda Darnell, Otto Preminger and blazing Technicolor. Seen today it’s hard to believe Forever Amber (1947) was a major scandal in the Hollywood press when the opulent 20th Century Fox period piece ran into trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, as they took exception to Kathleen Winsor’s novel and a cinematic adaptation of the story dealing with a woman whose social climbing and bed-hopping may hinder a romance with her true love. (The original book, which was flat-out banned by the Catholic Church, is almost a thousand pages long, so as you can imagine, they had to do a lot of compression and cutting to get it down to a 138-minute movie!) Nothing in this narrative would be out of place in a contemporary Harlequin romance novel (don’t worry, the quality’s several notches above), but at the time this was considered fairly hot stuff.

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New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)

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To view Something Wild click here.

Something Wild (1986) is a road movie with a penchant for detours, keeping its eyes on the side roads and rest stops instead of the highway in front of it. A shapeshifting romantic-comic thriller, it adjusts its tone to the landscape, paying as a romcom in NYC, a chase film in Pennsylvania and a horror movie in Stony Brook. The only thing that ties together the film are the rest stops and delis the movie’s increasingly unhinged characters stop into for snacks, robberies, and a break from the world outside. Each location provides more subcultures for the insatiable eye of director Jonathan Demme to explore, whether it’s the tiny liquor store manager with a giant pipe or a duo of style conscious old thrift store biddies, Demme imbues every scene with indelible personalities, making the film a kind of American oddball panorama in which two star-crossed lovers keep criss-crossing through.

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The World’s a Stage: The Golden Coach (1953)

THE GOLDEN COACH, (aka LE CARROSSE D'OR), Anna Magnani, 1953.

To view The Golden Coach click here.

The Golden Coach (1953) begins with a red curtain raising on a stage, the camera pushing in until the edges of the theater disappear and the story proper begins. Jean Renoir’s feature about an Italian theatrical troupe setting up shop in Peru foregrounds its artificiality, a play within the film that is a performance for our benefit. Near the end the troupe’s star actress asks, “where does theater end and life begin?” a question Renoir had been asking since his beginnings in cinema. It is a question without an answer, but indicates the space in which Renoir prefers to operate, within that intersection where playfulness and improvisation meet the social structures that try to contain them. The Golden Coach focuses on Camilla (Anna Magnani), a dynamic stage presence who bewitches three of Peru’s most eligible bachelors, but cannot decide who she ultimately desires. She can only find clarity while on stage, and heartache off of it. So in an extraordinary conclusion, the film makes an argument for perpetual performance, instead of turning your life into art, make art of your life, regardless of the consequences.

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History and the Movies: Michael Collins (1996)

Austin Powers in Goldmember

To view Michael Collins click here.

“If the price of freedom, if the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it.”

Those are the words of Michael Collins as spoken by Liam Neeson. Actually, to put it more accurately, those are the words of Neil Jordan, writer and director of Michael Collins(1996), as spoken by Liam Neeson portraying Michael Collins. It’s the kind of thing Michael Collins may have said but didn’t. And maybe that’s all that matters. History and the movies have always been uncomfortable bedfellows and I have long argued that I don’t care if the history is correct in the movie as long as A) the movie works and B) the history is broadly accurate in spirit. As I wrote here years ago, I’m watching the movie for the entertainment, not the history lesson. If I want to learn the history, I can read about it whenever I want. So when a filmmaker changes certain aspects of history to further dramatize the story, I don’t usually mind as long as no one’s character is being irreparably smeared (see First Officer Murdoch in James Cameron’s Titanic). And, indeed, Jordan does change certain things in his effort to make the fight for Ireland’s independence more accessible to a wider audience without completely rewriting history. He does pick on Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) just a little bit by portraying him as a self-centered and jealous leader, a president of the Republic of Ireland who would rather start a civil war than agree to favorable terms he didn’t negotiate (the Anglo-Irish Treaty). In actuality, he believed the terms weren’t favorable and refused to cave on his principles. Michael Collins, on the other hand, both historically and in the movie, felt the treaty, which insured a certain measure of independence for Ireland, was a necessary first step. But does any of this make for a good movie?

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