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August 16, 2014
David Kalat
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Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.

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KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
COMMENTS: 65
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Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!

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Carole Lombard will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up on Sunday, August 11th.

While pursuing my personal interest in local history here in Napa I was pleasantly surprised to discover how one of my favorite funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited California’s Wine Country in 1939 to star in Garson Kanin’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). This notable RKO production was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicled a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple-minded Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, mingled with locals and befriended some well-heeled residents who still fondly recall family stories about encountering the lovely Lombard.

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A Century of Scares: Happy Birthday Bava!

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This week marks the 100th birthday of Mario Bava who was born on July 30th (according to leading Bava researcher Tim Lucas and author of the essential Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark) or 31st (if you want to believe IMDB.com and Wikipedia). The brilliant Italian director, cinematographer, special effects artist and screenwriter died in 1980 but today he’s fondly remembered by horror film enthusiasts as the Maestro of the Macabre. Bava has long been one of my favorite filmmakers so I couldn’t let this important anniversary pass without acknowledging his artistry.

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BERGMAN IN JULY*

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(* … or not. As an alert reader just pointed out, Bergman has been replaced with a tribute to James Garner. Still… I’ll leave this post for future reference, as I’m sure TCM will eventually bring some of these films back.)

I recently screened a 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s (1918 – 2007) The Magician (1958). His birthday was on Bastille Day (July 14th) and his day of death was July 30th. It is fitting that both his life and death should fall on the same month. The Swedish director is famous for artful portrayals of existential extremes that tackle the agonies of passion and life against a backdrop of inevitable mortality in ways that put them back-to-back. His most famously iconic scene from The Seventh Seal (1957) turns the game between life and death into something that is not even back-to-back; it’s face-to-face in a setup that is still referenced even today (ie: in The Colbert Report‘s “Cheating Death” segments). Which brings us back to the end of July… usually thought of as a summer moment made for back-pack adventures, trips to the water-park, and leisurely moments spent lounging around in air-conditioned spaces. But perhaps TCM programmers were hip to the idea that July is also Bergman’s month, because this Monday night they are showing six of his films back-to-back. Here are some crib notes for those ready to take the plunge.  [...MORE]

The Power of a Well-Placed Exclamation Point, Part 2

postersbobI had so much fun selecting tag lines from Golden Age movie posters for last Thursday’s post that I thought I would revisit the topic in Part 2. A bit of light summer reading!

As with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis from last week’s post, I ran across other movie stars who inspired tag lines based on their star images. Bob Hope was renowned for his exquisite timing in which he delivered one-liners and asides with a precise, rapid-fire delivery. His comic persona was a unique combination of boasting and belittling, self-promoting and self-deprecating.  In the poster for My Favorite Blonde (1942), Madeleine Carroll has Hope in a compromising position. She says, “Did you like the kiss Bob?” As I read Hope’s one-liner response, I could almost hear his voice speak the line, “I’ll tell you as soon as the water on my knee stops boiling!”

Other Hope-inspired tag lines gently deride the comic, much like he did to himself. For example after the title “Where There’s Life (1947),” the tag line continues with “There’s Hope In the King-Size Comedy of a Cut-Rate Clown Prince!” A “disclaimer” at the bottom of the poster assures viewers: “If you laugh yourself sick at this picture . . . sue Bob Hope!” Another poster references classic westerns to belittle Bob’s misadventures in the Old West: “Covered Wagon . . . Stagecoach . . . Red River . . . AND NOW  Bob Hope [and] Rhonda Fleming in Alias Jesse James.”

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The Power of a Well-Placed Exclamation Point, or Would You See a Movie Based on This Tag Line?

postertrader* Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs is still unavailable to post her usual tantalizing and entertaining articles, so I am filling in for her once more.

For several months, I have been researching posters for classic movies for a personal project. I enjoyed the experience more than anticipated because I have learned a great deal. Classic-film posters were rendered like illustrations, making them more artistic and colorful than contemporary posters dependent on photographic elements. Another entertaining ingredient is the tag line—that one-line description used to suggest something about the movie that will lure viewers into the theaters. Written by studio press agents, producers, or unsung employees in the publicity office, the tag lines are frequently melodramatic, sometimes funny, and occasionally vexing. I thought I would share a few that I found interesting. Be prepared for excessive exclamation points!

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THE VERTIGO OF TIME

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Unlike Chris Marker (1921 – 2012), I am not an editor, poet, videographer, novelist, digital multimedia artist, or filmmaker. Even on a strictly personal level we are worlds apart, him having been a Salinger-like enigma who famously avoided interviews and photographs, me being a “nothing close to Salinger-like on any level” kind of guy who just last week photo-bombed his own shot of John Waters in a manner that would make even the paparazzi cringe. And yet, despite our many differences, there is something about Chris Marker that always elicits in me a feeling of deep kinship – and not just because we both love cats. The answer, I think, lies in one word: Vertigo. [...MORE]

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June 28, 2014
David Kalat
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Caligari Glen Ross (Expressionism is for Closers)

Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema.  It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet.  But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative.  Looks like it was shot yesterday.

And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up.  Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art.  Because (ahem) it’s not.

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 6
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“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?” – Remembering Eli Wallach 1915-2014

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“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?”
- Tuco (Eli Wallach) in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)

We lost Eli Wallach on June 26th at the ripe old age of 98. The talented actor was beloved by film fans and fellow actors so quickly cobbled together obituaries as well as many heartfelt tributes have begun flooding the World Wide Web. It’s with much trepidation that I tip my own toe into these grief-filled waters but since hearing the news I haven’t been able to get Wallach out of my head. The Brooklyn born son of Jewish parents who immigrated to America from Poland appeared in over 150 films and television productions including BABY DOLL (1956), THE LINEUP (1958), SEVEN THIEVES (1960), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE MISFITS (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE VICTORS (1963), LORD JIM (1965), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967), ACE HIGH (1968) and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970), which are just a few early highlights from his lengthy body of work. And while it’s difficult to point to a favorite role in a career as vast and varied as Wallach’s I can’t deny that his unforgettable turn as the grinning bandito in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY has had the biggest and most long-lasting impact on me. It’s a film I first saw nearly 40 years ago with my father when I was just an impressionable kid and much like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (another favorite Wallach film), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a movie that I have returned to countless times and each viewing experience becomes richer and more rewarding.

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Pirates 101: Of Wenches and Ladies, Corsets and Balloon Pants

pirateopeningI love pirates who swashbuckle their way through high adventure on the high seas, but I am not always thrilled with the women who try to tame them.  For this second installment in my series in support of TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight on pirate movies, I offer some thoughts on wenches, ladies, and female buccaneers.

A common female character in pirate movies is the aristocratic woman—or, lady—who detests the roguish protagonist because he is uncouth, ill-mannered, and unrefined. Typically, her father represents a powerful local authority, which makes him the arch-enemy of the pirate. Often, the pirate kidnaps the lady, or she finds herself aboard his ship through unforeseen circumstances, instigating a series of romantic adventures in which his virile masculinity wins her over. In the end, the lady lies to authorities, claiming that she had actually run away with the pirate of her own volition; or, she realizes he has acted nobly, which alters her opinion of him. In the silent version of The Sea Hawk (1924), the smitten Lady Rosamund  defends her pirate kidnapper, while in Captain Blood (airing this Friday, June 20), the governor’s daughter changes her low opinion when Blood fights for England against the French.

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