There’s a Lesson to be Learned Here

When we think of message movies, we tend to think of the Stanley Kramer variety where a serious social issue is dealt with heavy-handedly by an all-star cast letting us know it’s time for a lesson in civics that sorely needs to be learned.   They aren’t all like that, of course.  Sometimes the message is interwoven into a movie that deals with its characters and story first and puts the message in service of the plot and not the other way around.  Crossfire, for instance, which airs today on TCM, is a thriller first, a message movie second.  But what about all those movies that so subtly hide their message they’re not considered message movies at all?  They still have lessons for us, if you know where to look.

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Wait, that’s what it’s about?!

We all make mistakes.  I’ve made far too many to count at this point in my life but we learn from our mistakes as well.  Sometimes, at least.  One mistake I have repeatedly made in the world of cinema is not fully investigating what a movie is about before deciding whether or not to see it.  I don’t mean reading up on the plot, I mean just a basic idea of the story.   In many of these cases, when I finally discovered, by finally watching the movie, what it was really about, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn’t seen it sooner.  Today, Peter Weir’s 1977 masterpiece, The Last Wave, airs today on TCM.  It’s the poster movie for this kind of thing with me and when I finally watched it, it became an instant favorite.  The same has happened for many others.

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An American Blogger in Paris

If I don’t respond to comments on this post right away, you’ll have to forgive me, I’ll be in France.  Paris, to be exact.  I can’t let David Kalat have all the fun.  I won’t be painting on the sidewalk, dancing with French school children, or staging a triumphant grand finale set to the music of Gershwin but in my heart, the movies will inform my every move.  I’ve never been to Paris before but it’s my lovely wife’s birthday this weekend and that’s what she’s wanted to do for years so that’s what we’re doing. Until now, I’ve only known Paris from the movies.  And the movies have made it irresistible.  But then, that’s what movies do.  They take a location most of us are unfamiliar with, and transform it into something special. As big as Paris, New York, and London are, the fact is most of the several billion people who live on the planet don’t live in any one of them.  Most have probably never even visited them.  But the movies have made us all cosmopolitan.  As I discover the real Paris, let’s revisit some of the sites the movies have glamorized and why I’d like to visit those fictional real places more than the real real places.

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On the Waterfront (1954): A Poster Gallery

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I’m unapologetically biased when it comes to On the Waterfront (1954). I’m well aware of the controversy surrounding the production but I firmly believe it’s one of the greatest American films of the 1950s and on April 24 and 27 Turner Classic Movies in association with Fathom Events and Sony Pictures Entertainment will be bringing this American classic to theaters across the country for a special two-day event. Both screenings will include an exclusive commentary by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz explaining how the film, which was shot in just 36 days, has had such a long-lasting cultural impact. Tickets are available at the Fathom Events website.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience this powerful and provocative movie on the big screen I highly recommend doing so. You might think you understand what made Marlon Brando such a commanding screen presence but until you’ve had the opportunity to see him strut and fret for more than an hour on the big screen, I don’t think you can fully appreciate what made him a Hollywood trailblazer and acting heavyweight. But don’t just come to watch Brando at his best. There are many more reasons to see On the Waterfront including Elia Kazan’s outstanding direction, Boris Kaufman’s moody black and white cinematography, Budd Schulberg’s potent script, Leonard Bernstein’s compelling score and a top-notch cast of supporting players that include Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb firing on all-cylinders while delivering some of their finest screen work.

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Barrymore Best: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

ss17Ethel Barrymore & Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

This month Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting “The Best of the Barrymores.” The Barrymore family regularly appears on TCM but every Monday evening throughout April viewers can tune in and catch a selection of films featuring one or more of the Barrymore siblings in some of their best roles. Next Monday (April 18) the TCM spotlight will shine on Ethel Barrymore and one of the films scheduled to air is The Spiral Staircase (1946) at 10 PM EST/7 PM PST.

The Spiral Staircase is a longtime favorite of mine and the film has been hailed as a prototype for many of the best giallo; the Italian genre films that I touched on just last week in a piece titled Death Walk Twice: A Giallo Double Feature. With thoughts of murder and black-gloved killers still running through my mind, it seemed like a good time to revisit this classic thriller that features an Academy Award nominated performance by Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden matriarch of a wealthy family that is concealing some unsavory secrets.

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Hitchcock’s One Set Wonders

Today, TCM runs one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits of the forties, the suspense wartime thriller with Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, and John Hodiak, Lifeboat.  Lifeboat is notable for taking place entirely on one confined set, the lifeboat that all of our characters are aboard for the duration.  I can’t even imagine the story board sessions for a movie like this but it would be a daunting assignment for any director to undertake a movie where the setting just doesn’t change.  At all.  Fortunately, Alfred Hitchcock was at the helm so everything worked out just fine.  Indeed, Lifeboat is one of my favorite one set wonders, though admittedly, I don’t have many.  A film that takes place at the same location from start to finish needs to have crackling writing, enthusiastic and energetic acting, or virtuoso cinematography or all three.  Otherwise, it’s going to be a long two hours.

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The First Time I Ever…

Tonight TCM airs one of the all time classics by anyone’s yardstick, The Wizard of Oz.  It’s a movie that occupied a great deal of my childhood imagination as its annual showing was a highlight of each passing year, long before the days of cable and VCRs and DVDs when making sure you were home in front of the tv on Good Friday was your only chance to take in the magic of Oz.  And a magical movie it was, and is to this day.  It’s also a movie that can easily lead off a list I’ve wanted to do for some time: The First Time I Ever…  What does that mean? Let’s start off with The Wizard of Oz and it should be clear.

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The Front Page

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Coming up this Wednesday TCM is offering up The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931). This pre-code screwball comedy co-produced by Howard Hughes is based on a scandalous 1928 Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, two veteran newspaper writers who had worked at rival Chicago papers in the 1920s. While the play raised eyebrows with rough language and double entendres, Milestone’s screen adaption, despite being pre-code, softened the edges a bit, with one example being the creative omission of the last word heard at the end of the play. The TCM trivia page notes how the “last line of the play had to be partly obliterated by the sound of a train because the censors (even of that day) wouldn’t allow the phrase ‘son-of-a-bitch’ to be used in the film.” Still, the original New York Times review observes that “the producers have succeeded in retaining many more of the lines of the play than was anticipated. The censor is in more than one instance virtually defied through ingenious ideas.” Given all the nudie postcards clearly decorating the walls in the background, I’d say the censors were already asleep at the wheel. [...MORE]

The Memos of Jack Warner: “The Mustache Is the Thing for This Picture”

blogopenerIn last week’s post, I offered snatches of internal memos from Warner Bros. regarding their day-to-day operations during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I quoted from memos between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I detected a long-term tension between the two, especially on the part of Wallis. Based on comments I received (including on Facebook), I don’t think some readers quite believed me, claiming that Wallis was only doing Jack Warner’s bidding, and that Warner was far worse. This week I focused on the memos of Jack Warner to see if he was, indeed, “worse” than Wallis. Warner could certainly be bad-tempered, irritable, and downright crabby, but, in my opinion, he was cantankerous with everyone. In a way I can’t fully explain but certainly intuit, it didn’t seem personal. My favorite aspect of the Warner memos was something I didn’t expect—a quirky humor that made me laugh out loud. Below is the unfiltered wit and venom of Jack Warner, vice-president in charge of production, i.e. the mogul behind Warner Bros.’s movies during the Golden Age. Make of it what you will.

As mentioned last week, memos on Warners’ pre-Code movies are scarce, but Jack did weigh in on certain issues that would not be relevant after the Code was enforced in 1934—most notably the breasts of some of his stars. In a 1933 memo about the dailies for Convention City, he wrote, “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts,. . . .for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” In a pre-production memo regarding The Case of the Howling Dog, he reminds producer Sam Bischoff, “Be sure that Bette Davis has her bulbs wrapped up.” Davis’s “bulbs” became a moot point because the actress refused to appear in the film. She was suspended for this infraction of her contract, and the role was given to Mary Astor.

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The Movie Myths We Think We Need… But Don’t

One of the movies not playing on TCM this Easter Sunday is Rebel Without a Cause.  There’s no reason it necessarily should but, technically, it’s an Easter movie since it begins its story on the night of Easter Sunday.  That said, I thought of it, nonetheless, because this is Easter Sunday and if it’s Easter, that movie always comes to mind (I’m betting there’s almost no one else alive who has that happen to them).  And one of the things that comes to mind whenever I think of Rebel Without a Cause is an interview I read years ago, now available online, with its screenwriter Stewart Stern.  And when I think about that interview, I think about a key part of it where they discuss writing credits and how we all cling to myths about the movies and why.

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