Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 28, 2015
In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 5, 2015
Crap. Dave beat me to it. When I saw that Five Million Years to Earth was airing on TCM, that one title eclipsed all other offerings on tap this week. I say that with no offense to Waterloo Bridge or The Prince and the Showgirl, to name but a few other movies also popping up this Wednesday (and I’m not even familiar with those titles, so what would I know?)… S’aright, I’m not in a writing mood anyway. I recently lost two four-legged friends, which is also the reason for changing my avatar. With what little energy I have, I’ll do this: I’ll segue from Kubrick, to the MGM lion, to parting words for Five Million Years to Earth, and call it a day. [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 24, 2015
William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.
Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.
Later this week, TCM is running a programming block to pay tribute to all of the 1937 Best Supporting Actor Nominees. Which is one of those gloriously random, weirdly specific programming decisions that makes TCM such a delightful destination for obsessive compulsives. The channel will run Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth, in honor of Ralph Bellamy’s Best Supporting Actor nod. And that’s all fine and well and good—Bellamy is excellent in his “Right Wrong Man” role—but if you really want to celebrate the best supporting performance in this film, you need to be looking at Asta the Dog.
Mike Nichols was a veteran comedy director of stage and screen, not to mention a comedy performer of no small renown. He would go on to become of the few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (the fabled EGOT)—all but the Emmy being won for his comedy work.
Buck Henry was a prolific comedy writer whose career had taken him from the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show to co-creating Get Smart with Mel Brooks to updating Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby for a new generation under the title What’s Up Doc? In the years to come he would become a recurring host of Saturday Night Live, a contributor to The Daily Show and a guest star on 30 Rock.
Together they had collaborated on The Graduate, and Catch 22. They had a contractual obligation to producer Joseph E. Levine for a third film—and so in 1973 Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a plot to use talking dolphins to assassinate the President. This is a not a joke.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 15, 2013
My last post was spurred on (emphasis on “purr”) by the poster for Inside Llewyn Davis. The protagonist of that film at one point passes by a poster for The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markle, 1963), which is a Disney movie about two dogs and one cat going trying to find their way home. The name for the cat that Llewyn Davis chases throughout the film is Ulysses, which was actually played by three tabbies – neither of which gets a credit in the film. (Sacrilege! Someone call P.E.T.A.) Whether the movie viewers then choose to consult Joyce or Homer for further inside references is a matter of taste. For me, because the story concerns a man who is ejected from his NYC environment who goes off on a series of adventures, which include alienating his family (and later getting back together with family), all while having some adventures on the road with a cat, I couldn’t help but think of Harry & Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1975) – a film that starred two tabbies in the starring role of Tonto. But, mainly, it made me think of cats and movie posters. So here, as promised, are more images of exactly that. [...MORE]
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 1, 2013
I was going to write about The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), because it’s screening tomorrow on TCM and, also, because the latest Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), opens theatrically this coming Friday. Instead, I got stuck on the Inside Llewyn Davis poster. There is something about its composition that I find very striking. To notice it, you’ll have to ignore the top and bottom, which are lame in the ways that most movie posters are routinely lame: emphasizing celebrity names up top, and then all the normal credits at bottom. The middle section, however, is inspired. I can’t stop looking at the cat. There are several reasons for this, and the first is due to the sight-lines, which immediately reminded me of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) painting by famous German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a classic example of a visual construction where all the lines lead to the center. Except in Friedrich’s case the lines of the natural landscape converge on man, whereas with the Inside Llewyn Davis poster, the sight-lines provided by the New York City streetscape converge on the cat. I think this is great because, in my humble opinion, any movie poster is immediately improved with the addition of a feline presence. Since our furry little friends are said to have nine lives, in this post I’ll be looking at how cats have been depicted throughout cinema in nine different categories. [...MORE]
Posted by Susan Doll on October 17, 2011
Author Susan Orlean recently published Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, a biography of the canine movie star. Instead of doing the usual round of book signings at bookstores, which are seldom lucrative these days unless the author is a star or celebrity, Orlean is touring theaters. The author is using the occasion to introduce new generations to Rin Tin Tin by showing a 1925 film starring the talented canine. I thoroughly enjoyed Orlean’s program, which included a short film about Rin Tin Tin, a reading from the book, a screening of Clash of the Wolves, a Q&A with the author, and a signing for those who purchased the book. If Orlean comes to your area, I can’t recommend her program enough; it offers much to think about regarding the meaning and value of pop culture in America, the bond between humans and animals, and the need for writers to find a larger context for their memories and experiences.
Unlike Lassie, who was a character created for the movies and played by several male dogs, Rin Tin Tin was a real pet from the real world before he became a movie star. And, there is much about his life story that is as heart-wrenching as any script for a movie. In September 1918, U.S. soldier Lee Duncan found a family of German shepherds in a bombed-out kennel in Fluiry in the Meuse Valley of France. A female with five puppies seemed to be the last survivors in the kennel, and Duncan took it upon himself to rescue them. He found homes for the mother and three pups, but he adopted the remaining two puppies, which he named Rin Tin Tin and Nenette (some sources use “Nanette”) after popular French dolls of the time. When he tried to arrange for passage for the two puppies on his return trip home to America, he ran into red tape. An officer intervened on Duncan’s behalf, and the puppies made the arduous voyage. Sadly, Nenette died from canine distemper shortly after her arrival in the States, but Rin Tin Tin grew into a strong, athletic dog. A striking-looking dog, Rin Tin Tin was nearly black, with gold marbling on his legs, chin, and chest. His unusually large, tulip-shaped ears were expressive, signaling mood or emotion through their twitchy movements or erect position.
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