The Funny Old Dark House


“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business. [...MORE]

The Opera Ghost Requests Your Presence

Phantom of the Opera 1925 1

It’s October, and you know what that means: spooky movies all month long! Every horror fan of a certain age has a favorite movie monster they first encountered as a child: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For me it was the Phantom of the Opera, whom I met in a number of cinematic guises before I was out of elementary school. The combination of grotesque horror, cliffhanger thrills, and doomed romance is like catnip to an impressionable young viewer.  Now it’s a fine chance to make the Phantom’s acquaintance right now, since TCM’s running the Lon Chaney silent version on October 7, and Herbert Lom’s turn in 1962 just made its Blu-ray bow in a sparkling new presentation as part of Universal’s Hammer horror set.

So here we go with a few thoughts about the many faces of the Phantom we’ve seen over the past century, and what’s remarkable about this seemingly immortal character is the fact that every significant movie adaptation has turned out to have something of value. [...MORE]

Gene Hackman: A Perfectly Ordinary Man

Gene Hackman shows his talents today on TCM with a pair of terrific movies, The Conversation from 1974 and Scarecrow from 1973. He also makes an appearance, and a great one, in the movie following those two, Young Frankenstein, and it was in the seventies that he became not only a box office draw but one of the most respected actors in the business.  He did all of it without matinee idol looks, a brooding persona, a flamboyant acting style, or a playboy personality.  He was perfectly ordinary in every way, except for the acting.



A Grand & Moving Thing: The King and I (1956)


Yul Brynner in The King and I. TCM & Fathom Events are screening this classic musical on August 28 and 31 in select theaters across the U.S.

“If you live long enough and you’re lucky you may get the chance to see two or three originals in your lifetime.”
- TV commercial advertising the 1982 stage production of The King and I at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre

In December of 1982 I was given a ticket to see Yul Brynner perform The King and I at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It was a birthday gift from my mother who knew how much I loved the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and Yul Brynner. I was a hard-to-please adolescent and I’d never had the opportunity to see a big Broadway production before but at the time I was studying dance and trying to figure out if I wanted to pursue a career in theatre, music or writing. You all know what I eventually decided to do but seeing Brynner on stage in the role he made famous was one of the most electrifying and downright amazing experiences of my life.

At age 62, the bronze and barrel-chested actor was still a charismatic and commanding performer. A true ‘original’ as the commercial for The King and I advertised who had created the character of King Mongkut on stage in 1951 before bringing him to the screen in 1956. A year after I watched Brynner belt out “Shall We Dance?” he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died in 1985 following a hugely successful return to live theatre. His death devastated me but Brynner remains immortal in my mind thanks to his unforgettable appearances in a number of great films.


David Bordwell and “The Rhapsodes”: Old-School Film Critics

blogopenerThe sheer volume of movie reviews suggests that everyone and their mothers have become film critics. And, I mean that literally. I once worked as the managing editor of a video magazine. One day a young woman phoned to tell me that she and her mother would like to review movies for the magazine, particularly “old” movies. By that she meant movies from the 1970s. She assured me they were qualified because, “We watch a lot of movies from the 1970s.”

Before the Internet “democratized” film reviewing, critics like Ebert, Denby, Turan, and Rosenbaum wrote for newspapers, journals, or magazines. Movie-lovers of my generation read their reviews and essays because they were well written, and each review taught us something about film or culture. The critic I followed religiously was Dave Kehr, who wrote for the Chicago Reader, then the Chicago Tribune, before moving to one of the New York papers. He is currently a film curator at MoMA.

The proliferation of reviewing in recent years has watered down the art or craft of film criticism. Few reviewers are distinct writers, let alone talented ones. Cheap sarcasm has replaced style, particularly for young reviewers who look for reasons to dislike a film so they can jab at it. What they don’t realize is that this snarky discourse makes their reviews sound so similar they are virtually interchangeable. Film scholar David Bordwell’s latest book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, reminded me of the dismal state of contemporary reviewing because it chronicles the work of four film critics who not only knew how to write but who had distinctive voices and points of view. [...MORE]

Vertigo: Hitchcock was wrong


“VERTIGO: ver´ti-go –
a feeling of dizziness . . .
a swimming in the head . . .
figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed
in a whirlpool of terror.” – from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

The title of my post is somewhat deceiving but that’s the idea. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about deception in the movies, particularly when it comes to the medical condition known as vertigo.


Are the Legends of Tomorrow Already Here?

Today on TCM, the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year airs and it marked Peter O’Toole’s twentieth year as a star.  His stardom began with his breakout role in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and continued, with some ups and downs, for the next 50 plus years.  He even has a movie out in 2016, three years after his death.  It’s The Whole World at Our Feet and obviously whatever part he has in it was filmed some time ago.   His career, on the whole, probably has many more duds than hits and his selection wasn’t always the best.  There were long dry spells in his career, enough that his starring role in The Stunt Man, released in 1980, was considered a comeback for him, even though he’d been nominated for Best Actor just eight years prior for The Ruling Class.  The problem was, after The Ruling Class, he appeared in one flop after another.  Still, there’s no doubt that O’Toole left this life a legend and also little doubt that his eventual status as a legend was probably cemented right out of the starting gate with that breakout role as Lawrence.  For many others, the path has not been so clear.



The Sequels That Never Were

Coming on TCM tomorrow is one of those sequels that was never necessary but also turned out to be not bad.  The sequel is 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the original is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, both movies now take place in the past, a past somehow completely missing smart phones and Facebook.  It’s a tough business predicting the future but it’s just another workday in Hollywood taking popular story lines and characters and rehashing them for one more go around.  In 2010, the characters are actually different except for the spirit/presence of Dave Bowman, but it’s an extension of the story.  And while I didn’t much care for that particular story extension, there are three classic Hollywood films that never got a sequel (or the sequel I wanted) that, frankly, I wouldn’t have minded seeing.  And I should clarify that up front, that I’m not necessarily talking about movies that didn’t have sequels.  One of the movies I’m thinking of did indeed have a sequel, just not the one I wanted to see.  Speaking of which…



We Are Not Alone: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Forbidden Planet

Today on TCM, two of my favorite sci-fI movies air, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Forbidden Planet.  They approach their aliens from distinctly different angles but share characteristics that have always kept them at or near the top of my favorite sci-fi movies list.  The fact that I saw both of them for the first time in 1977 might be one of the reasons I have always thought of them in the same breath but there are other reasons, too, and I believe that both exemplify the best that science fiction cinema has to offer.



All My Favorites in One Place: The Best Casts Ever Assembled

A few months ago, I wrote a piece here on some of my favorite ensembles of supporting players where the leads were far from my favorite thing.  I focused on how with certain movies, the main story didn’t grab me but the great supporting cast did.  Well, as I wrote that I already had in mind a piece on my favorite casts, period, the ones in which I love pretty much every lead and supporting player in the enterprise.  Still, I didn’t think about it far beyond that original post until coming upon a movie on the schedule today and everything came flooding back in.  The movie is The Wild Bunch and it’s one of my favorite movies, the kind that becomes a favorite from the moment you see it and remains so through multiple viewings down the road.  And one of the reasons it’s such a favorite is that cast.  One of the best casts ever assembled.


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