Barrymore Best: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

ss17Ethel Barrymore & Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

This month Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting “The Best of the Barrymores.” The Barrymore family regularly appears on TCM but every Monday evening throughout April viewers can tune in and catch a selection of films featuring one or more of the Barrymore siblings in some of their best roles. Next Monday (April 18) the TCM spotlight will shine on Ethel Barrymore and one of the films scheduled to air is The Spiral Staircase (1946) at 10 PM EST/7 PM PST.

The Spiral Staircase is a longtime favorite of mine and the film has been hailed as a prototype for many of the best giallo; the Italian genre films that I touched on just last week in a piece titled Death Walk Twice: A Giallo Double Feature. With thoughts of murder and black-gloved killers still running through my mind, it seemed like a good time to revisit this classic thriller that features an Academy Award nominated performance by Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden matriarch of a wealthy family that is concealing some unsavory secrets.


Hitchcock’s One Set Wonders

Today, TCM runs one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits of the forties, the suspense wartime thriller with Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, and John Hodiak, Lifeboat.  Lifeboat is notable for taking place entirely on one confined set, the lifeboat that all of our characters are aboard for the duration.  I can’t even imagine the story board sessions for a movie like this but it would be a daunting assignment for any director to undertake a movie where the setting just doesn’t change.  At all.  Fortunately, Alfred Hitchcock was at the helm so everything worked out just fine.  Indeed, Lifeboat is one of my favorite one set wonders, though admittedly, I don’t have many.  A film that takes place at the same location from start to finish needs to have crackling writing, enthusiastic and energetic acting, or virtuoso cinematography or all three.  Otherwise, it’s going to be a long two hours.



Douglas Slocombe: A Tribute


You can enjoy some of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography tomorrow, February 26, when TCM airs Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 5:30 PM EST/2:30 PM PST.

Douglas Slocombe, the brilliant British cinematographer, died earlier this week at the ripe old age of 103. Slocombe’s filmography reveals that the skilled camera operator with a keen eye for composition worked on some of the best-looking films produced in the U.K. beginning in the 1940s at Ealing Studios until he retired following the completion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. During his long and impressive career, Slocombe was nominated for numerous honors including 3 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs and was awarded 6 times by the British Society of Cinematographers. Today I thought I would take a brief look back at the man’s life and celebrate his achievements with a gallery of images that showcase his talents.


deliver us from sleepless nights, one day at a time

jan tcm

Two weeks ago, shortly after finishing my last post, I read the obituary for Haskell Wexler, who received five Oscar noms and two wins. The one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols, 1966) was to be the last Oscar given out for a black-and-white film. A week later I was reading the obituary for Vilmos Zsigmond, another Oscar-winning cinematographer legend who first blew me away in 1971 with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Deliverance. They say death comes in threes, but I don’t remember reading anything about the grim reaper adding vocations to his deadly lottery numbers. Should I worry about Christopher Doyle and Emmanuel Lubezki? My fears were, of course, unfounded, as the third showbiz obit for me to read came last Friday, and it was for Pat Harrington Jr., aka: Schneider on One Day at a Time. They all made their contributions in the field of entertainment, and each NYT obit had its surprises. [...MORE]

When Technicolor Was Spectacle

colordorianSpectacle and the movies fit like a hand in glove. Ever since Georges Melies innovated a few camera tricks in his charming turn-of-the-century fantasies, the cinema has used spectacle to attract viewers to the theater with the promise of seeing something larger than life—something out of the realm of the ordinary. Today, spectacle in films is equated with elaborate, large-scale action sequences generally enhanced by computer-generated imagery (CGI). I recently caught Mad Max: Fury Road, and though director George Miller claimed to have kept the CGI to a minimal 20%, the non-stop barrage of chases, crashes, and explosions was just as NOISY as any CGI-laden comic-book film.

I had been looking forward to Mad Max, because The Road Warrior is one of my favorite movies, and I was pleased that director George Miller had returned to reboot and rework his concept and characters. While the film was better directed than most action blockbusters, there were so many racing vehicles, bizarre, nightmarish characters, and fiery crashes that I was numb from the spectacle, not thrilled. The heavy-metal guitarist chained to the front of a truck and pounding away at his futuristic instrument was the last straw—it was the proverbial “kitchen sink” that Miller tossed in after including every distorted vehicle and twisted human in his imagination.

Thoughts of spectacle in the movies were still on my mind when I noticed that The Picture of Dorian Gray is scheduled to air on TCM this Saturday, June 27, at 8:00pm. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an example of movie spectacle from another era—a time when glorious Technicolor was considered special, or sensational.


William Mortensen in Hollywood

William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last Month my husband, a fellow photography buff, gifted me with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen for Valentine’s Day. The book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on set and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label Mortensen the “Antichrist” and in the following decades critics attempted to minimize his artistic contributions and erase Mortensen’s name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.


Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).


Spending the Day with Jack Cardiff

cardiffopenerI always say that if you want to learn about the art and the magic of cinema, then listen to a cinematographer talk about his or her craft. Tomorrow, July 2, at 6:30PM, TCM will air a documentary on cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who began his long career at the start of one revolution—sync-sound—and ended at the start of another—digital filmmaking.

I first saw Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff at the Telluride Film Festival a couple of years ago, where I met the director, Craig McCall, who was certainly passionate about his subject. Jack Cardiff, who is best known for his work on the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was Great Britain’s premiere Technicolor cinematographer. The veteran cameraman was still alive during the production of the documentary, and his entertaining insights into his long career are a lesson in film history and aesthetics.  During the day, TCM will air several of Cardiff’s Technicolor classics so viewers can watch the films, then listen to his observations and experiences in Cameraman while the movies are still fresh in their minds.


Understanding Visual Storytelling with Steven Fierberg

Fierberg-8113Over the years, I have listened to many cinematographers speak about film. Whether describing their role in the making of a specific movie or talking about classics from previous eras, I have never been disappointed. Cinematographers are the best source for explaining how a film imparts meaning through its visual language.

Last week cinematographer Steven Fierberg (Love and Other Drugs; Secretary; Entourage) visited Ringling College of Art and Design to offer his insight and expertise to students. Part of his visit included a presentation to Ringling students and faculty on the art of visual storytelling. My History of Film students attended, and several wrote about the positive impression that Fierberg made on them for a class assignment. Instead of lecturing, Fierberg offered his ideas through a series of clips from well-known films, which made for a dynamic demonstration. I learned so much from his presentation that I wanted to share some of his comments and insights.  The films that Fierberg used as examples should be familiar to most TCM viewers; looking at them again from a different perspective reveals their craftsmanship and artistry.


William Edward Cronenweth: A Legacy in Photos


William Edward Cronenweth photographing Rita Hayworth (1947)

In my ongoing quest to learn more about the talented men and women who were responsible for taking the imaginative studio portraits and set photos we all love but too often take for granted, I recently became fascinated with the work of William Edward Cronenweth. Trying to compile information about the man was difficult and I often ran into obstacles while attempting to learn more about his life and work. Cronenwerth’s name is rarely mentioned in the various books I’ve read about studio photography and if it is, the information tends to be sparse and inconsistent. Hopefully this brief portrait I’ve compiled will shine some light on Cronenweth’s considerable contributions to Hollywood’s glamorous history.

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