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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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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Organization Man: Odd Man Out (1947)

4082_odd_man_out_(1947)movie_Odd Man Out has an absence at its center. It stars James Mason as a revolutionary in Northern Ireland, but he is either missing or comatose for the majority of its running time. A scattered group of fringe players search for his body, from IRA fellow travelers to middle-class families to eccentric bird merchants. What emerges is a portrait of a stunned post-WWII Belfast, tired of violence but in no hurry to pass Mason off to the cops. It is either sympathy or indolence that keeps him alive, as his husk is passed from alley to bar and finally, to the docks. The city’s cavernous, emptied out streets are the setting for Mason’s absolution. For though he is a murderer, Mason’s beatific, radiant performance gives his character a saintly aura, as if taking on the sins of the post-war world. Though it has overshadowed the lower-budgeted Brit-noirs of this period (which are in need of reclamation), Odd Man Out is more than worthy of its reputation. Earlier this month it received the Criterion treatment, released in a new HD restoration on DVD and Blu-ray, with their usual array of copious extras, including a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

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Border Incidents: Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and The Hanged Man (1964)

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“He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn’t like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The thing to do was get out quick.” – Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

 

Ride the Pink Horse is a grim procedural of hate. Published in 1946, it was Dorothy B. Hughes’ ninth novel, and second to be adapted into a film, following The Fallen Sparrow (1943). A cynical gunman named Sailor travels to a remote New Mexico town during their yearly “Fiesta”, a Southwestern Mardi Gras. He is tracking down his former mentor “The Sen”, a corrupt ex-Senator, for shakedown money. Sailor is a single-minded racist brute, circling the small town in ritualistic repetitions, until the map of the main square is in ingrained in your head (one of the early Dell paperback editions included a map on the back anyway). Sailor is an outsider, and no matter how often he treads the city’s streets, it continues to constrict slowly around him. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie adaptation for Universal-International alters many of the plot details, but captures the doomed fatalism of Hughes’ work. Typecast as a light romantic comedy lead, Montgomery took on greater risks as a director, starting with the POV experiments of Lady in the Lake (1947) and continuing through the elaborate crane shots orchestrated by DP Russell Metty in Ride the Pink Horse. It has been a certified cult film ever since Jean Cocteau programmed it at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz in 1949, but it has been hard to see until next week, March 17th, when the Criterion Collection releases it on DVD and Blu-ray.

But this was not the only adaptation of Ride the Pink Horse. In 1964 Don Siegel directed the telefilm The Hanged Man for NBC, after his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers was pulled from broadcast, deemed too “spicy, expensive and violent for TV screens.” This time he got his project on the air — the second made-for-TV movie ever shown. The setting is relocated to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, emphasizing the choked streets and vibrant colors that Robert Culp and Edmond O’Brien wander through with clenched determination.

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That’s Entertainment: The Band Wagon (1953)

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Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical.  The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.

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Hollywood Jazz History: Syncopation (1942)

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“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation

Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges  the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper).  Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.

The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.

 

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Cowgirl Diplomacy: Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

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Final Repose: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

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Albert Lewin is an elusive figure in the history of Hollywood. He was an educated aesthete with a B.A. from NYU and a M.A. from Harvard who took a job as a script reader at Samuel Goldwyn studios. He swiftly rose through the ranks after Goldwyn was absorbed by MGM, and he was one of the five “Thalberg Men” who facilitated the studios success,  overseeing hits like Spawn of the North and Mutiny on the Bounty. When not overseeing super productions, Lewin  directed six unusual features, almost all about artistically inclined loners enmeshed in a debilitating obsession. His most famous film is his 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. It is a startlingly controlled production, from Hurd Hatfield’s evocatively blank lead performance to the deep focus photography of DP Harry Stradling, which gives ample space for Gray’s emptiness to expand.

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Boob Tube: UHF (1989)

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UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.

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Bowling for Dollars: Kingpin (1996)

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Farrelly Brothers movies are akin to family gatherings. They are filled with extreme neuroses, unexpected violence, and deep undercurrents of affection. Their films are even populated with friends and relatives from their Rhode Island home. Listen to any of their audio commentaries and you’ll find that half the actors are bankers and car salesman who grew up with them back east. Every time I see a Farrelly feature I think of how Manny Farber described Howard Hawks’ “weird mother hen instinct.” The Farrellys have it as well, just weirder.  Dumb and Dumber was their directorial debut and an enormous hit, a tale of ignorant male friendship that lowered scatalogical slapstick so far it went below lowbrow and out the other side. It’s also their first attempt at depicting the bonds of brotherhood, in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels perform a kind of radical acceptance of each other’s flaws — through complete stupidity, but still (they treated the same theme with greater complexity in Stuck on You, their greatest film and biggest bomb).  The long-gestating but certainly not maturing sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, comes out next month.

The Farrellys follow-up to the original Dumb and Dumber, though, will never get a sequel, though it did come out on Blu-ray last week. Kingpin is another tale of success-challenged males learning to live with the other’s failure, this time in the lacquered middle-aged crisis world of bowling. Though where Dumb and Dumber is an abstract performance piece, as Carrey and Daniels could have been performing in front of a blank wall to similar effect, Kingpin tries to embed its outrageous characters into a semblance of the real world. Each bowling alley and auto-body shop is lovingly detailed, and essential to the development of its sad sack characters. The lead failure Roy Munson, Jr. (Woody Harrelson) is from the made-up small town of Ocelot, Iowa, a corroded rust belt city where he was once its proudest son as State Bowling champion, while ending up in a pit-stained flophouse in Scranton, PA dodging his scrofulous landlord’s bill. He sees a way out in the smooth stroke of Amish naif Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who he thinks can win the big bowling competition in Reno, and take down his longtime nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray).

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