An Evening in the Company of Legends

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I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.

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Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN'S 'THE NEW JOB'

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN’S ‘THE NEW JOB’

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William Mortensen in Hollywood

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William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last Month my husband, a fellow photography buff, gifted me with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen for Valentine’s Day. The book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on set and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label Mortensen the “Antichrist” and in the following decades critics attempted to minimize his artistic contributions and erase Mortensen’s name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: ‘Man in the Attic’

atticposterLast fall, businessman Russell Edwards announced that he had finally uncovered the truth behind history’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Edwards claimed that DNA left behind on a victim’s shawl was used to identify the Ripper as Aaron Kosminski, long considered a primary suspect. As soon as the news was announced, DNA experts and Ripperologists came forward to denounce the findings based on doubts about the shawl’s provenance and the likely contamination of the evidence. And, so it goes with our fascination with the Ripper mythology: We want so badly to find out his true identity, but then again, we don’t.

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper’s identity allows filmmakers and writers to use him as a symbol or representative force. The Ripper has been part of cinema history since 1924, when he appeared in a nightmare sequence in the German Expressionist film Waxworks. Since then, a variety of directors have interpreted the mystery, adding to the rich folklore surrounding the historical figure. I recently caught a film version of the Ripper story released in 1953 called Man in the Attic, starring Jack Palance, Constance Smith, and Frances Bavier, and I was reminded of how potent a character he could be.

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Requested Snapshots from the Archive

Bowery Boys Meet the Monster

Two weeks ago I sniffed around the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive. Although the trial access period expired last Friday, I did snag a handful of screen-grabs for films that will be playing on TCM, and that were suggested to me by readers. The films are: Crooner, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, The Hoodlum, The Bat Whispers, Convention City, and a request for an original review for London After Midnight. As my access to the EIMA archive expired on Friday, I was unable to act upon anything after that. But here’s what I did find: [...MORE]

Laugh Riot: I’LL GIVE A MILLION (1938)

mill0Tonight TCM is devoting its 31 Days of Oscar programming to the year 1938. Films on the schedule include Best Picture nominees THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) and BOY’S TOWN (1938). Today also happens to be actor John Carradine’s birthday.

Carradine doesn’t appear in any of the films airing on TCM tonight he did make nine movies in 1938 including I’LL GIVE A MILLION, which I recently watched for the first time. I’LL GIVE A MILLION might not be Oscar material or worthy of the tagline “The Laugh Riot of the Century!” that accompanied trade ads for the film but it does feature two Oscar winning actors (Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt) and includes two amusing comical performances from Peter Lorre and birthday boy John Carradine. So in keeping with TCM’s 1938 theme and in honor of the late great John Carradine I thought I’d shine a little light on this depression-era comedy directed by Walter Lang.

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THE WIZARD OF OZ – 75th Anniversary

75th Anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ

A blurb written in 1998 by Rick Polito for a TCM screening of The Wizard of Oz was resuscitated on the internet two years ago and went viral: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Eight years before that, during my college years in 1990, space limitations on the calendar film series I was programming inspired similarly curt descriptions. Mine, however, were not funny and only annoyingly glib. For 2001: A Space Odyssey I wrote one sentence: “Do we really need to write a description for this?” My flippant entry for The Wizard of Oz was no better: “You know this one too. It’s not like it hasn’t been on TV every year for the last 25 years.” Had I done my homework I would have known that, at the time, it had actually been on TV for even longer than that but, either way, readers were not amused. And rightly so, because no matter how familiar you are with The Wizard of Oz, the film has many layers, it deserves more than flippant sentences, and it rewards repeat viewings. More to the point, people who are only familiar with The Wizard of Oz from television will have a  big-screen opportunity to tremble under the earth-ripping power of those opening cyclone shots, thanks to TCM and Fathom Events which will be bringing the movie to select theaters nation-wide on January 11th. [...MORE]

The Wonderful World of Disney Comes to TCM

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As a kid growing up in 1970s my Sunday nights revolved around The Wonderful World of Disney. It was my cherished respite before the much dreaded school week began and I savored every last minute spent in front of the family television set. At the time, residents in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and mostly raised, only had access to 10 or 12 available channels to choose from and many of those were locally run and operated. There were no video stores renting movies in those days and the idea of streaming films directly into your own home was merely a faraway fantasy. In these limited environs, The Wonderful World of Disney offered kids and adults of all ages a surprisingly diverse and family friendly smorgasbord of programming that included animated and live action films, nature documentaries, educational shorts and special broadcasts made especially for television. Much to my delight, Turner Classic Movies has recently teamed-up with The Walt Disney Studios for a new on-going program called Treasures from the Disney Vault hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and film critic Leonard Maltin that’s making its debut this coming Sunday night on December 21st. TCM’s impressive 8-hour block of television is a throwback to The Wonderful World of Disney of my childhood and I hope it will introduce a new generation to the wonderful treasures hidden deep within the vaults of the Disney Studios.

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Words for Wilder

Lemmon & Wilder
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Last night I was visiting the local Alamo Drafthouse and saw that they will be screening The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960). Featured cocktails include Between the Sheets (rum, cointreau, brandy, lemon) and The Maiden’s Prayer (gin, rum, cointreau, and of course, lemon, gotta have the lemon). TCM also screens The Apartment this Friday and it’s an apt choice for December given the pivotal scenes in the movie that hinge on the holidays. Wilder and his long-standing screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond won an Oscar for The Apartment, and casual conversation amidst my group touched on other favorites by the duo, such as the obvious choice, released the year before The Apartment, Some Like It Hot (1959), then jumping out a decade later to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

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Bergman’s Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern

Last summer I had some fun at the expense of the printed TCM program for July by examining how brevity is not always the soul of wit, at least when it came to the short (by necessity) blurbs used in the monthly TCM guide to describe the six films that had been selected to showcase the talents of Ingmar Bergman. It turns out the post was premature and didn’t take into account that all six Bergman films got bumped for a last-minute tribute to James Garner (who passed away on July 19th). But this Wednesday, December 3rd, the Bergman Block is being brought back – and in honor of that I’m resuscitating my previously premature post here, adding a new preface. [...MORE]

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