To Share or Not to Share: Kids and Classic Film

stagecoach1939_14

To view Stagecoach click here.

One of the things I like to write about most is the journey of introducing my daughter to classic films, especially my personal favorites. From the time she was about three, Ellie knew Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire by name. She mimicked the movements of Cyd Charisse, rolled around on the floor like Donald O’Connor, attempted pratfalls like Cary Grant and once pointed to a photo of Fredric March and said “Daddy.” I recently wrote a piece here at StreamLine about showing Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid to Ellie, a film I was originally hesitant to share with her due to themes of abandonment, adoption, poverty and classism. She handled it fine, and naturally had questions, which I was more than happy to answer. Education and context are both key to enjoying movies, especially ones that are from past generations, with different sensibilities and social norms. Because of my passion for classic film both as a hobby and a profession, movies and all the stories that surround them are often up for discussion in our home. Sometimes she’ll hear me mutter to myself as I jot down notes for future essays. I’m well aware that many classic films have content that is considered objectionable and inappropriate for children. From complex adult themes, misogynistic behaviors and crude racial stereotypes and bigotry, I always try to be extra cautious when it comes to exposing Ellie to this kind of content. I think we are all well aware that even the most family-oriented classic films can have problematic content. One of the examples I use is a line from one of my favorite comedies, and one that I’ve shared with Ellie: Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby. In it, Cary Grant’s nerdy David Huxley says: “That’s pretty white of Mr. Peabody.” It’s a line Grant says casually, but has a terrible and powerful meaning. Now, I typically take the approach of acknowledging overtly racist and sexist content and using it as a teaching moment, providing age appropriate context when needed (think along the lines of TCM’s old summer series The Essentials Jr.), but I’ll admit that many times, like in the case of Huxley’s comment on Mr. Peabody’s pleasant, generous disposition, I will leave things be until intervention is needed. A lot of things, especially dialogue, typically flies right over a 6-year-old’s head, so I’ll handle it when it needs to be addressed. Other than those little moments, I try to be vigilant.

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John Alton and Film Noir: Painting with Light and Shadow

RAW DEAL (1948)

To view Raw Deal click here.

A shadowy, expressive photography defines film noir. It creates the kind of heavy mood and atmosphere that the German Expressionists called stimmung. The genre seemed to bring out the best in cinematographers, but two have been singled out by scholars and historians—Nicholas Musuraca and John Alton.

Musuraca photographed noir favorites such as Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), while John Alton’s work in the genre was in B-movies for directors Steve Sekely (Hollow Triumph [1948]), Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo [1955]), and Anthony Mann. Alton shot six films for Mann; five of them are streaming on FilmStruck, including the noir Raw Deal (1948).

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Remembering Robert Osborne

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This week we bid farewell to the patron saint of classic film, the venerable Robert Osborne. News of his death hit hard amongst the classic film community and beyond. Although he had been dealing with health issues in recent years and had taken an extended leave of absence from his hosting duties on TCM, many fans, myself included, hoped Osborne would eventually return in some capacity. While TCM has done a marvelous job of bringing in excellent new hosts and programming, the network won’t be the same without him; we will never hear those beautiful words “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne” again. I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly happy about living in a world without Robert Osborne in it. His passing has left a giant hole in the heart of the classic film community. Fortunately, we have many beautiful stories of Osborne’s kindness and generosity in addition to interviews, books and articles featuring his knowledge and first-hand accounts of Hollywood legend and lore.

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From Flappers to Feminists: The Movie Versions of Chicago

CHICAGO, Phyllis Haver, 1927

When I lived in Chicago, I enjoyed learning the city’s history—not the events you find in text books but the city’s pop culture history. Chicago was that toddlin’ town where notorious gangsters opened red-hot nightclubs in which soon-to-be-famous singers and comedians launched their careers; or, serial killers trolled for victims at the larger-than-life Columbian Exposition of 1893; or, the yellow press turned nobodies into celebrities because the competition to sell papers was so cutthroat. (See last week’s post on the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal.)

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Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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Before James Bond, There was Bulldog Drummond

BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, John Howard, 1937

As might be expected, the first big-screen detective was Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in Sherlock Holmes Baffled for American Biograph in 1900. Sherlock has enjoyed a long run on the big screen, which isn’t over yet, because Guy Ritchie’s third SH film is currently in the works. The most beloved American detectives are arguably Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because of their importance to film noir, a genre that continues to fascinate movie lovers and film scholars alike. However, I believe the golden age of the movie detective occurred in the years between the world wars when dozens of sleuths slugged it out in countless film series. The Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy represents a high point in production values and star quality, though most series were created as B-films. No matter the budget, all had their diehard fans who waited anxiously for the next movie featuring their favorite detective, be it Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy, the Falcon, the Lone Wolf, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, Torchy Blane, the Saint, or countless others. The Criterion Collection pays respect to the detective series by offering ten Bulldog Drummond movies for streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

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A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.

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Luis Buñuel died in 1983 at 83 of cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital in Mexico City. The Spanish-born filmmaker was famous, in part, for being fearless in his critiques of organized religion and the bourgeoisie. His cinematic career started in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou (aka: An Andalusian Dog), a short film he made with Salvador Dali. Fans of The Pixies probably can’t hear that title without also hearing lead singer Black Francis (now Frank Black) barking out the words to the song “Debaser”: “Got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know, Girl so groovy, I want you to know, Don’t know about you, But I am Un chien andalusia.” This a nod to the famous scene where a cloud cuts across the moon and then a razor seems to cut a woman’s eyeball (it was actually that of a dead calf with bleached fur). Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris. Things like that happened almost a hundred years ago before Netflix and binge watching.

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I (Don’t Really) Know Where I’m Going!

I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING (1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) is a lovely, simple tale of stubborn self-confidence, the unexpected nature of life and unlikely romance. Wendy Hiller, known best for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard production of Pygmalion (1938), is Joan Webster, a determined, self-assured British woman who has always made her own way. Since childhood, Joan appeared to methodically plan out every aspect of her life, including items that she had absolutely no control over. After finishing her schooling, Joan informs her father that she has made arrangements to marry a wealthy industrialist. The news of her marriage isn’t particularly happy, or calling for elaborate celebrations. Joan approaches the announcement and impending event in a rather cold, methodical way, like one would a business merger or the purchase of large kitchen appliances. At some point early in her life, Joan set the goal of marrying a wealthy man, with love clearly being secondary, if completely optional. It’s clear this engagement is more the result of her irrational stubbornness to fulfill one of her goals than the pursuit of true love. It all makes perfect sense to Joan, as it allows for her to move to the next planned stage in her adult life. As we all know, life doesn’t always go as planned. From the beginning, it’s clear that Joan is on her way to making a terrible mistake.

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Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

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Irma, I Love You, But You’re Breaking My Heart

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

When I decided to write about Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) for this week’s StreamLine piece, I originally intended to argue on the film’s behalf. In discussions of “lesser Wilder films” Irma La Douce is guaranteed to be on the list, arguably one of Wilder’s most baffling creations, along with The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which I’m convinced Wilder made solely so he could direct James Stewart in something. Not that I blame him one bit. As an aside, I’d like to note that Wilder made three films in 1957: the aforementioned biopic with Stewart, Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn and Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. An incredible feat, even for a master like Billy Wilder. But back to Irma La Douce: I’ve staunchly defended the film on more than one occasion, having mainly fond memories of the zany, haphazard plot. I’m a huge fan of Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and I ride-or-die for the much-maligned Avanti! (1972). Irma La Douce has always fit nicely alongside the two in the “Billy Wilder films that Jill loves for some insane reason” category. I recently revisited all three, hoping to come away with renewed appreciation so I can continue to fight on their behalf with my fellow impassioned film obsessives. While Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! retained their delightful magic, Irma La Douce disappointingly fell short. Very, very short. The film is a belabored, confusing collection of all the things that should work, but don’t. Oh how it pains me to finally admit it. And yet, I still find myself making excuses for this fiery train wreck of drunken Maltese pups, emerald green stockings and bad British accents.

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