In space no one can hear you scream

ripley01

ALIEN airs on TCM January 25th as part of their ‘70s Thrills programming

For decades screaming was often the weapon of choice for women in action, science fiction and horror films. We were expected to shriek, shout, yelp, whimper, squeal and squawk in the face of serious danger and (hopefully) a man would eventually come to our aide. So you can imagine how frightened little 11-year-old me was when I first heard the tagline for ALIEN back in 1979. Weeks before I actually saw the film I spent many sleepless nights rolling around in bed and contemplating the terrifying idea that no one could hear me scream if I was in space. If no one could hear me scream how could I be saved from whatever terrible danger awaited me?

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Edison, the Man-ipulator

Edison_the_Man__1_This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight is devoted to “Science in the Movies,” which showcases flicks with at least a nominal connection to science, including biopics of famous scientists. Let’s face it, most viewers, including myself, can name only two or three scientists at best, and, topping that list would have to be Thomas Edison. This Friday, January 24 at 8pm, TCM airs Edison, the Man, a 1940 biopic of the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison, the Man is the sequel to Young Tom Edison, and I wish both films were part of “Science in the Movies,” because they were conceived at the same time. Mickey Rooney stars as the scientist in Young Tom Edison, while Spencer Tracy plays the role in the sequel. In 1938, Rooney and Tracy had costarred in Boy’s Town, the biography of Father Flanagan, which had been a hit for MGM. While the double Edison flicks did not exactly reteam Rooney and Tracy, they did take advantage of their successful pairing from Boys Town in a unique way. The Edison biopics were released only three months apart in 1940, which explains the less-than-exciting titles. The studio wanted to avoid potential confusion over two films about the same subject, while telegraphing to audiences that the second film continues from the first. MGM’s strategy proved sound: sequels rarely did big business at that time, but Edison, the Man drew a bigger box office than Young Tom Edison.

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Another Day in Black Rock

badposterIn most film history books, the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen processes is attributed to the studios’ attempts to counter the rising popularity of television.  Making the big screen bigger was one strategy to increase the level of spectacle in the movies, thereby luring audiences back to the theaters, along with color, stereo sound, and gimmicks like 3-D. Early films exploited widescreen by including casts of thousands, as in The Robe, or by shooting in beautiful, foreign locations, as in Three Coins in the Fountain.

Despite the spectacle of casts of thousands in period costume, historical eras recreated via huge sets, or postcard views of exotic locales, some directors had difficulties with widescreen. The academy format had been perfect for composing in depth, but widescreen was not. Also, close-ups, which are so important in drawing audiences into the emotion of a character or scene, could look clunky in widescreen. It took some directors and producers a few years to get the hang of it.

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Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Secret of Madame Blanche

blancheopenerThough quite popular among film-goers from the silent era through the 1950s, the melodrama has rarely gotten much respect from critics and scholars. A slippery genre to define, it is usually identified through its excessive emotion, suffering heroines, focus on relationships, and foregrounding of female interests, points of view, and values. During the Golden Age, movie reviewers—most of whom were male—regularly dismissed “weepies,” or women’s films. Today, melodrama has completely disappeared from the big screen, and the word “melodramatic” is often used as a pejorative term. Melodrama would likely not appeal to young audiences jaded by the computer-generated imagery of fantasy films or to mature audiences accustomed to serious dramas in the realist style. The artificiality that defines the acting, plotting, and visual style of melodrama is antithetical to today’s natural acting styles and realistic storylines.

While Golden Age stalwarts such as Stella Dallas, Now Voyager, Dark Victory, or The Women, get their due as classics, lesser-known melodramas like The Secret of Madame Blanche might be a harder sell. But, Madame Blanche, which airs on TCM this Thursday at 4:45pm, is a solid example of both the melodrama’s conventions and strengths. Viewers should not be put off by the genre’s peculiarities or artifice.

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christmas-in-july
December 21, 2013
David Kalat
Posted by:

Putting Christmas back in (the title of) Christmas in July

OK.  So Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July isn’t a Christmas movie.  But it has Christmas in the title, and you know what?  The Thing wasn’t a Christmas movie either, so there.

Christmas in July is however one of Sturges’ funniest films, and one where Sturges’ somewhat misleading and occasionally inconsistent philosophy really works.

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KEYWORDS: Christmas in July, Preston Sturges
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A Celluloid Revolution – James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

jamesdean

“In sixteen months of acting, he left a more lasting impression on the public than many stars do in thirty years.”
- Henry Ginsberg (GIANT producer)

The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as a one of our greatest actors. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it’s a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films that have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
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Happy Birthday Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas: Revisiting the Blacklist

blacklistopenerAs coincidence would have it, today marks the birthday of both Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, whose names are linked because of their participation in breaking the back of the infamous Hollywood blacklist during the production of Spartacus. The ultimate survivor, Douglas has lived through the decline of the studio system, the upheaval of the Film School Generation, the politics that come with a career in Hollywood, and the effects of a stroke. Today, he turns 97. Trumbo survived ten months in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten as well as the indignity of the blacklist. He died in 1976 at the age of 71.

Trouble began for Trumbo, a highly respected screenwriter for such films as A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, and A Guy Named Joe, when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Despite his impressive filmography, it was his script for Tender Comrades, and its alleged “communist” message, that landed him in front of the committee, along with nine other writers, directors and producers. Collectively known as the Hollywood Ten, the group refused to answer some of HUAC’s questions, resulting in a storm of publicity and an angry, vengeful Congress. Trumbo served about ten months in a federal pen for contempt of Congress. Afterward, he moved to Mexico City for a couple of years, then quietly returned to Hollywood in 1954, where he began writing screenplays under assumed names and behind “fronts,” that is, people who used their names to submit scripts and rewrites for blacklisted writers. [...MORE]

Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

Poster - Mildred Pierce

What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder. [...MORE]

The Star System and ‘If You Could Only Cook’

cookkitchenThis could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.

To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre.  I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.

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