‘Flickering Empire’ Reveals Chicago’s Role in Film History

flickopenerCan you guess where the first film version of The Wizard of Oz was produced? Hollywood, 1939? What about the first newsreel? New York, maybe? Or, the initial screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol? Would London be a reasonable guess? What about the first movie to chronicle the story of Jesse James? The original film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or, the first biopic of Lincoln? The answer to all of these questions is not Hollywood, or New York, or London—all represented in the history books as places where film pioneers established a new medium. The answer is Chicago—the so-called Second City—which barely rates a mention in most of those books.

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry (Wallflower Press, 2015) by Michael Smith and Adam Selzer offers a well-researched, in-depth chronicle of the Windy City’s role in cinema history. From the early 1890s to World War I, the city was a major player in the motion picture business, giving the likes of Carl Laemmle, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Charlie Chaplin, and Francis X. Bushman a leg up in their careers.


Summer Reading Suggestions


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.


The Last Picture Show

Bogdanovich Last Picture Show

“I thought you might want to go to the picture show. Miss Mosey is having to close it. Tonight’s the last night.” – Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)

How is it that nobody has done a modern version of The Last Picture Show? I realize that Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, is about much more than Miss Mosey having to close down the movie theater due to dwindling business and the rise of television, but let’s face it: the death of the Royal Theater in a small town, circa 1952, serves as a larger emblem of the many chapters in life that open and close for the characters of Anarene, Texas. It does so in ways that are understandable for anyone going through adolescence, their mid-life, and even death. Still: so much is implied by the four simple words of the title that it’s no surprise the book caught the eye of someone like Bogdanovich.


Page to Screen with Soylent Green


Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! in 1965. It was published a year later and in 1973 was turned into the feature film Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison was clearly influenced by Malthusian theory, a stance that might be summed up by the 18th-century British cleric and scholar in one concise sentence: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Over the years, critics of Thomas Robert Malthus have found plenty of fodder with which to reject his dire premise, mainly because the models used by Malthus didn’t account for the many ways in which human ingenuity would make many resources more readily available, and at lower prices, to the growing number of people inhabiting the planet. Malthusian critics might also point to the divide between Harrison’s scenario, which envisioned life in the Big Apple circa 1999 as being multiplied by a factor of five, going from seven million people in the sixties to 35 million by 1999. That didn’t happen, not in NYC at least (Tokyo, on the other hand, has now surpassed that number). Today, the population of of NYC hovers under the nine million mark, perhaps held in check by the exorbitant price of a martini, not to mention the going rate for monthly rent. Fleischer, working in the 70s, decided to hedge his bets by extending the date for Soylent Green out to the year 2022. He also contributed powerful imagery not found in the book of people being scooped up by garbage trucks, which also made for a very compelling poster. [...MORE]

On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’

foxesposterTo cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.

During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.


GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980

gunswordbookI first became familiar with Chris D.’s (Dejardins) writing in the early 90s thanks to his work for a small-press magazine (or zine) called Asian Trash Cinema. At the time I was utterly obsessed with Japanese pop culture and history and for a 10 year period roughly between 1991-2001 I spent many of my weekends in San Francisco’s Japantown where I’d rent movies and anime (often without any subtitles), buy manga and books I couldn’t read and eat lots of good meals that I couldn’t pronounce properly. I was also writing and publishing my own zines at the time. Zine culture peaked in the ‘90s before the internet changed the way we all communicate but for a brief time the only place where you could really find good information about cult cinema, B-movies, forgotten gems and unusual art-house films was between the pages of self-published zines and small-press magazines like Psychotronic, Video Watchdog, Shock Cinema and Asian Trash Cinema. These are the kinds of publications that helped shape my own film interests and writing. While many film journalists may have found popular mainstream critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert inspirational, they held little interest for me because they weren’t talking (or writing) about movies that appealed to my own eccentric tastes and if they were, they weren’t particularly kind. But folks like Chris D. were and one of Chris’ early essays from Asian Trash Cinema (Issue #3, 1992) titled YAKUZA EIGA: Losers on Parade is one of my favorite pieces of writing on Japanese cinema. When Chris D. composed that love letter to gangster (aka yakuza) films that I was just discovering and beginning to appreciate, he was one of a handful of writers trying to thoughtfully grapple with a genre that had been ignored and maligned by critics and scholars for decades. Chris helped me see the often tenuous connection between Japanese cinema and the country’s complex cultural fabric that seemed to confuse and perplex many western writers. I mention all this because I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer. In fact, Chris and I have exchanged numerous notes over the last few years and I was honored to be asked to write a blurb that appears on his latest book GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. I wanted to share his new book with Movie Morlocks’ readers but to be fair I thought I should let you know these facts first. What follows is my honest review of Chris’ latest book but read on at your own discretion.


The Pulp Adventures of Lee Marvin

Illustration by Robert Foster

“Lee Marvin in a room is the best storyteller I know. Lee Marvin brings me to tears laughing when he starts talking about fishing tournaments he’s been in and this, that and the other thing. He talks in sound effects all the time. I just think Lee Marvin is one of the most engaging people I know.”
– Director John Frankenheimer (from John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays and Profiles edited by Stephen B. Armstrong)


Seiter House Rules: Movietown Baby Grows Up

william-seiter-1938Nixon, Marian_03

 On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon.  They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents.  Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.


Aleksandr Sokurov’s Ghost Stories


Aleksandr Sokurov’s Soviet Elegy (1989) begins with a tour of tombstones, the camera floating down rows of Communist phantoms. In the next sequence, Boris Yeltsin is shown stalking down a hallway, another kind of ghost, one aware of his coming obsolescence. Sokurov’s work is a series of elegies, in which ghosts of history mourn for themselves. Cinema Guild has illustrated this development in their three-disc box set of Sokurov: Early Masterworks. It contains the three features Save and Protect (1990, DVD), Stone (1992, DVD) and Whispering Pages (1994, Blu-Ray), plus three of his shorts, including Soviet Elegy. Each displays his increasingly idiosyncratic visual sense, in which he uses distorting lenses to produce stretched figures akin to El Greco saints, yearning for a God who doesn’t respond. Sokurov is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous Russian spiritual guide/director. But while Tarkovsky often offers the possibility of transcendence, there is no such hope in Sokurov, just figures circling a void.


Musique Fantastique: An Interview with Author Randall D. Larson

Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.
– Bela Lugosi, DRACULA (1931)

A soundtrack can often make or break a movie for me. While some might find it easy to overlook a dissonant score that sounds out of place or overbearing, I find the choice of music in a film as important as the casting. A good film score can literally become another character on the screen. It can set the pace and mood of a film or blend seamlessly into the background. Soundtracks can transform a film’s atmosphere and confirm or deny our deepest feelings and fears. And nowhere is this more apparent than in horror, science fiction and fantasy films.

Author Randall D. Larson knows much more about the importance of a good film score than I do and he just published the second edition of Musique Fantastique (Book One), his highly acclaimed comprehensive analysis of music in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films. It’s a fascinating and informative read that should interest anyone who appreciates film music. Recently Randall took the time to answer a few of my questions about his book for the Movie Morlocks and I hope you’ll enjoy reading his answers.


MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Academy Awards  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art Direction  Art in Movies  Asians in Hollywood  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Black Film  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  Film Festival 2015  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films About Gambling  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Memorabilia  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  New Releases  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies