The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

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Love in Enunciation: Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938)

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Aside from George Cukor’s visually stunning musical masterpiece My Fair Lady (1964), Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith (with Leslie Howard receiving co-director credits), is the only other significant film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play of the same name. Of the two films, Pygmalion is the more faithful adaptation and arguably the better movie. Although it lacks the splashy technicolor, catchy Lerner and Loewe musical numbers and intricate Cecil Beaton designed costumes featured in My Fair Lady (and those incredible hats!), Pygmalion tosses aside the showiness (although Schiarpelli fashions are nothing to sneeze at) for a more genuine and authentically English production. Its stripped down approach accentuates the stark contrast between the ill-mannered, uneducated, poorly dressed flower girl, and the simple, well-spoken, dignified elegance of a duchess. The success of this adaptation is likely due to Shaw himself. Producer Gabriel Pascal obtained filming rights from Shaw directly, who was originally hesitant to make the deal. The playwright was involved in the production, lending his talents to the adapted screenplay, which won him the Academy Award in 1939. Despite his involvement with the film, Shaw was greatly disappointed with the tacked-on happy ending. Shaw was aware that his original ending wouldn’t be in the film, so he negotiated a reasonable compromise with Pascal. Unbeknownst to Shaw, Pascal had filmed an ending which was different from what was agreed upon. When he discovered Pascal’s changes, the notoriously difficult Shaw was quite mad, and rightly so. Maintaining his integrity as a well-respected playwright was paramount, and altering the outcome of two of his most famous characters jeopardized that, or so he thought. Moviegoers in the 1930s wanted to see even the most flawed of characters find some sort of happiness, especially in their romantic lives.

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More Than Ashley Wilkes: Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Many of us know the story: Leslie Howard negotiated with David O. Selznick for co-producer credits on the 1939 film Intermezzo: A Love Story (Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood debut and remake of the 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo, also starring Bergman). In exchange, Howard begrudgingly agreed to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s unrequited love interest, the handsome, emotionally weak Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939). Howard despised the role, thinking it ridiculous that at 46 he was playing the young, impossibly handsome twenty-something southern gentleman. He also made little effort to conceal his disdain for the role during the filming of the sweeping epic, once commenting, “I hate the damn part. I’m not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.” Well, ok then.

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A Queen Too Many

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Mary of Scotland (1936), released by RKO, is an interesting historical drama with a touch of romance directed by John Ford. In 1936, Ford was hardly a novice; he had directed over eighty productions, including Academy Award nominated films Arrowsmith (1931), The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). Although he had success in some of his early films, Ford had yet to hit his creative stride, which arguably didn’t begin until the 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. In Mary of Scotland, we only catch but a glimpse of Ford’s genius.

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Ingrid Bergman, a Legend in Any Language

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Chances are any film lovers worth their salt encountered Ingrid Bergman at a fairly early age, most likely through her iconic role in Casablanca (1942) or her trio of films for Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and the black sheep of the trio (and the only one in saturated Technicolor), Under Capricorn (1949). One of the most prominent and popular of the many European émigrés who transformed Hollywood before and during World War II, she is also perhaps the most fascinating example of someone bridging the often peculiar relationship between the Old World and Tinseltown.

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The Funny Old Dark House

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“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

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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.

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

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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.

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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]

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