What I Learned from Summer Under the Stars

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Summer Under the Stars concludes today with the entire day devoted to the films of Shelley Winters. I thought I would look back on this month’s programming and ruminate on what I have learned as well as to make note of my favorite films. I invite readers to comment on their favorite moments from Summer Under the Stars and note any disappointments. Perhaps, TCM will take the feedback into consideration when programming next year’s August schedule. I am curious about which stars, films, and details appealed to regular TCM viewers, and if there are suggestions for the future; I am always impressed with the knowledge and perspectives of the TCM readers.

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Grab Your Tux and Let’s Go Clubbing

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Between Capitolfest and TCM’s focus on stars from the 1930s, I have discovered a newfound love for films from the Depression era. Among the many reasons for this recent interest is the imaginative, almost dream-like quality to some of the production design. I don’t know a lot about Golden Age production designers beyond recognizable names such as Cedric Gibbons and Hans Dreier, but I am beginning to understand the connection between their set designs and the overall tone or ambiance in films from this time frame.

Some of my favorite set designs are of nightclubs. Nightclubs and speakeasies boomed in America during the late 1920s, boosted by Prohibition and the liberation of women after securing the right to vote. Though clubs were regularly raided, many survived the end of Prohibition to become successful in the 1930s. Famous clubs like the Rainbow Room or the Park Avenue Club boasted elegant interiors by well-known designers, but the majority merely adopted gimmicky decorative styles to help them stand out from other clubs.

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August 22, 2015
David Kalat
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The Return of Arsene Lupin Returns, Returns

This is a DVR alert for the upcoming screening of the 1938 mystery thriller Arsene Lupin Returns, starring Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce and Warren Williams.  It’s a sequel to one of my all-time faves, Arsene Lupin.  I’ve raved about that gloriously brilliant 1932 Pre-Code classic several times in this blog before (and this counts as yet another rave, if you’re keeping count), generally in the context of being gobsmacked that it isn’t better known or loved.  There are so many lesser, markedly inferior films of the 1930s that garner audiences solely on the basis of technically being a “gothic horror.” The completest mindset of many horror film fans ensures that anyone who enjoys classics Dracula and Frankenstein will eventually find themselves sitting through something interminable and inexcusable like The Mask of Fu Manchu (which has the sin of being at once racist, sexist, and also boring!)  Meanwhile, Arsene Lupin rides to dizzying heights of entertainment but does so without Boris Karloff or fake cobwebs, so it gets forgotten.

(Grrr).  Anyway, stepping off my soapbox, I realize this week’s mission is a toughie.  If I find it hard to persuade people to watch the 1932 Arsene Lupin which is virtually flawless, what’s it going to take to convince them to watch its lower-budgeted 1938 Production Code-era sequel, in which none of the original cast or crew returned?

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KEYWORDS: Arsene Lupin, Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Warren William
COMMENTS: 3
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Mae Clarke: Frankenstein’s First Bride

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FRANKENSTEIN (1931) airs tonight on TCM at 9:30PM EST/6:30PM PST

The name Mae Clarke might not immediately ring any bells but the fair-haired, spirited and sad-eyed beauty was a promising leading lady in pre-code Hollywood before personal disappointments, mental health issues and a disfiguring car accident took their toll. When Clarke died in 1992 at age 81 most classic film fans remembered her as the woman who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face by James Cagney during THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) or they might have recalled her daring leap from a window to protect the man she loves in THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Thankfully, many of Clarke’s earlier films have been restored and made available since then. We’re now able to get a much broader understanding of why a 1932 issue of Picture Play magazine prophesied a “brilliant career for her” and Modern Screen claimed, “Mae Clark deserves a place among the big names of filmdom and will get there before long–watch her!”

Today TCM is featuring Mae Clarke in their Summer Under the Stars programming and you can catch her in a number of films including James Whale’s WATERLOO BRIDGE (1930), where she plays the doomed Myra. Many consider it her best film and Clarke often referred to it as her favorite role but today I’d like to focus on her often-overlooked performance in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), where she plays the sympathetic fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).

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Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and . . . Dali ?

blogopenerThis Friday, August 14, TCM salutes Groucho Marx as part of this month’s Summer Under the Stars. Most of the day is devoted to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers, which regular TCM viewers have seen multiple times. One of the most rewarding experiences for any avid movie lover is to watch a familiar film with a new perspective, leading the viewer to discover new insights and therefore a new appreciation. I hope my post today offers some of you a different perspective on the Marx Brothers’ movies.

Studying and teaching art history has prompted me to look at the movies in new ways. For example, when first studying the Dadaists in graduate school, I thought immediately of the Marx Brothers, because Dadaism was intentionally subversive and anarchic. It was born out of the anger and frustration over WWI and its causes, and it was designed to ridicule artistic traditions, moral conventions, and social institutions. In cafes and theaters, Dadaists dressed in ridiculous costumes, uttered meaningless noises, or performed poetry based on puns, nonsequiturs, and the interplay of words. Visual artists created collages and sculptures that reflected Freud’s and Jung’s ideas on the subconscious. After the war, the Surrealists picked up where the Dadaists left off, though their perspective was less nihilistic and they were more interested in tapping into the subconscious for their imagery. Surrealism is really about the irrational juxtaposition of recognizable images. Normal, everyday objects lose their identity or meaning because they have been taken out familiar contexts, or because they are depicted as warped or decayed. The imagery can be disturbing, provocative, and/or humorous. The artist whose work came to define Surrealism, at least for the mainstream public, was Salvador Dali, and Dali may have been the Marx Brothers’ biggest fan.

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Adolphe Menjou: From Valentino to Kubrick

Adolphe Menjou Holding Daschund Aboard ShipToday, the films of Adolphe Menjou are highlighted as part TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Classic movie lovers know Menjou as the dapper, erudite gent with the cane, hat, and waxed mustache. In comedies, melodramas, crime stories, and historical dramas, he was the older suitor, the authoritative boss, the cultured crook, the aristocrat. He was such a fixture in Golden Age movies that it is easy to assume he always played supporting characters. That’s the assumption an entertainment writer for the McClatchy-Tribune Information Services made just a few days ago in an online article promoting Summer Under the Stars. The writer questioned TCM’s decision to include Menjou, Mae Clarke, Virginia Bruce, and Monty Woolley, implying they were never really stars. She also hints that perhaps these performers are too obscure to be true stars. The writer, who will remain nameless, commits the fatal error that many web scribes make: She failed to adequately research her topic, assuming that if her generation has not heard of these actors, they must be obscure. She is wrong about Menjou. He was indeed a star before he evolved into a well-respected supporting player; as a matter of fact, he was a romantic lead for almost a decade.

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Birdwatching in Bodega Bay

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My better half and I just celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking a leisurely road trip through the Sonoma backwoods and along the California Coast. On our return, we decided to make a stop in Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock shot THE BIRDS (1963). I’ve spent time in Bodega before and it is one of the loveliest little coastal towns in Sonoma. It’s also extremely proud of its association with one of Hitchcock’s best and most celebrated films. While I was there I wandered along the wharf, visited some filming locations and spent time at the Hitchcock museum located inside the Bodega Country Store. The trip was a lot of fun and I snapped many pictures while I was there so I thought I would share my adventure in Bodega Bay with TCM’s blog readers.

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Freaks

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I was going to write about Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1961), which screens on TCM on July 18th, but I got derailed by my backyard screening last night of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). There were two 16mm prints in the university collection, and I had not yet seen the one that was a few minutes longer due to the opening scroll that had been added by Dwain Esper in 1947. I’ll share here some highlights I used to introduce the film for the audience last night, all cherry-picked from Dark Carnival, the Tod Browning book by David J. Skal and Elias Savada. [...MORE]

Underrated ’65

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When asked what my favorite film decade is I always mention the sixties. So what is it about the swinging sixties that I find so damn appealing? There are a plethora of reasons including the influx of foreign films that had begun to influence and inspire American filmmakers while avant-garde as well as pop art sensibilities began to flourish around the world. Long-held prejudices were being addressed in American cinema and black, Hispanic and Asian actors were able to find significant starring roles that broke racial barriers. The Hollywood studio system may have been on the decline but many of the best films produced during the decade were directed by old masters such as Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, John Huston, John Ford, John Sturges and Orson Welles who seemed to embrace change and created some of their most challenging and important work during this period.

I mention all this because myself and Millie De Chirico (the lovely TCM Manager of Programming) were recently asked to participate in Brain Saur’s Underrated ’65 project currently ongoing at his blog, Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Brian is an ardent supporter of classic film and you can always find interesting recommendations there as well as regular updates about new and upcoming DVD releases. I was happy to take part because I love sixties cinema and there are plenty of undervalued films from 1965 that deserve more attention and thoughtful consideration. So many that I had a hard time narrowing my list down to a mere Top 10 but that’s what I did and I thought it was worth sharing here.

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The Passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first masterpiece. It was critically acclaimed but a disappointment at the box-office. Dryer followed it with a second masterpiece, Vampyr (1932), which also failed to impress its investors, but this time he was criminally overlooked by the critics, probably due to the stigma that hounds the horror genre. Day of Wrath (1943) fared better, but due to its allusions to the tyranny of Nazi Occupation Dryer fled to Sweden and did not return to Denmark until after the war. Dryer grew up in a Danish foster home and was adopted by a newspaper typographer, and this later dovetailed into a career in journalism. In 1912 he got work as a title writer for Nordisk Film and for the next six years wrote many scripts before breaking out as a director. Dryer was influenced by Sergei M. Eisenstein’s work, but his films are in a class all of their own and have left deep imprints on many filmmakers, including Lars von Trier – who sometimes seems to be as haunted by Dryer as were all the people who worked on The Passion of Joan of Arc[...MORE]

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