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

Front Page

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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We Haven’t Seen Anything Really

Last Friday, March 18th, when I looked at the TCM schedule, I was reminded how many movies there are out there and how few any of us has really seen. Much of the time I look at the TCM schedule and can honestly say I’ve seen at least half of what’s on that day. The other half I may not have seen but I’m completely familiar with them and may have even seen a few scenes. There are other days when I have seen literally every movie on the schedule for that day. Big classic movies that we’ve all seen, say, during the 31 Days of Oscar. And then, on days like last Friday, I look at the schedule and think, “Wow, I’ve only seen two!” Those two were A Song to Remember and That Uncertain Feeling.  Of those on the schedule that I hadn’t seen?  Well, there was Wide Open, But the Flesh is Weak, Lonely Wives, Roar of the Dragon, Sing and Like It, Smarty, The Night is Young, Young Man with Ideas, Gypsy Colt, Moonfleet, and First Comes Courage.  I have not seen a one of them.  And why should I have anyway?  Do have any idea how many movies have been made?!

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Deep Inside the Dream Factory: Memo Wars Between Hal Wallis and Michael Curtiz

blogopenerRecently, while researching the production histories of specific Golden Age movies, I came across several dusty books from the back of my bookshelves. Evidently, I did not think they would be of much use to me. Purchased second-hand, they are a bit worse for wear. The books contain internal memos by producers and other behind-the-scenes personnel at the major Hollywood studios during the Golden Age, including Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Selzick’s International Pictures. What a treasure! The memos offer juicy tidbits about the daily operations of the Hollywood industry during that magic time known as the Golden Age. This week, I thought I would share a few memos from Warner Bros. between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I found them enlightening.

According to Rudy Behlmer, who compiled Inside Warner Bros. 1935 – 1951, there aren’t a lot of studio papers prior to 1935. But, there are certainly a lot of memos afterward, partly because Wallis liked to flood his staff with notes and suggestions and partly because of studio policy. Printed at the bottom of the Warner Bros. interoffice stationary was the reminder: “Verbal messages cause misunderstanding and delays (please put them in writing).”

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Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”

blogopenerEach Monday evening during the month of March, TCM celebrates “Art and Artists” by airing 18 movies about painters and sculptors. The most diverse films are those based on fictional artists or paintings, including everything from the horror classic The Mystery of the Wax Museum (March 21, 1:15am EST) to the comedy The Art of Love (March 28, 8:00pm EST). The series also spotlights dramatic biopics based on real-life artists, including tonight’s selection: Lust for Life, El Greco, Rembrandt, and Andrei Rublev.

With a background in art history, I am an unabashed fan of artist biopics, even though most of them are not really about the art. Directed by Alexander Korda in 1936, Rembrandt is an exercise in “good taste” as typified by big-budget British productions of that era. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt is given numerous opportunities to show off his gifts at dramatic recitation in a story that is mostly about enduring personal loss. El Greco, a TCM premiere, is a little-known Italian production with international star Mel Ferrer in the title role. The film posits El Greco as the outsider artist who butts heads with the closed minds of the Inquisition. The contributions of composer Ennio Morricone and set decorator Dante Ferretti, who would later team with Martin Scorsese, make this film worthwhile viewing. Of the four, Andrei Rublev by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is the most unconventional and the most cinematic. Tarkovsky eschewed a linear, cause-and-effect biographical structure in favor of experimental black-and-white imagery and a stripped down narrative in which little is explained but much is felt.

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The Winner Is. . . . The Lady Vanishes

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A few weeks ago, I solicited help from the Morlocks’ readers in deciding which early Hitchcock film to show in my advanced film history class. After weighing the suggestions and reading the comments, I chose The Lady Vanishes, the story of a British spy returning from a Balkan dictatorship with coded information important for England’s safety. Dame May Whitty stars as spry Miss Froy, who pretends to be a governess but is actually a capable secret agent. After she disappears while aboard the train bound for England, no one seems to remember her except for Iris, the young woman sharing her compartment. Was Miss Froy only a figment of her imagination?

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS REVEALS THE CRAMPED SET.

Before asking for advice, I was leaning toward showing Sabotage because of the surprising scene in which tiny Sylvia Sidney wields a large carving knife. Also, I thought the creative use of the Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin might be interesting to the animation majors. But I am glad that I changed my mind because it was clear that the class thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Vanishes. As one student noted, “This film is brilliant.”

In each of my classes, students fill out response sheets while watching the films. It’s a learning tool that forces them to be active viewers so they are better able to notice visual techniques, themes, or character types. With their permission, I thought I would share a few of their comments about The Lady Vanishes.

The limited setting received a lot of attention, particularly the idea that Hitchcock could squeeze so much action and suspense from what is essentially two main sets. The first third of The Lady Vanishes takes place in a small crowded hotel; one student remarked that the film seemed claustrophobic right from the beginning. She noted, “The environment seems just slightly too small for everything that is going on,” which intentionally enhances the claustrophobia. The characters fought over rooms, dined in tiny booths in a cramped restaurant, and hosted local dancers who clogged away in the confined space of the rooms. The train proved to be an even more limited setting, with the action intensifying into fights, chases, and kidnappings. Another student suggested that the train was like a microcosm of society, with all manner of characters interacting with each other. She felt that Iris entered this environ and experienced a life-altering adventure that was also a journey of self-discovery.

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

The suspense thriller is a genre that is no longer popular, so students are not always sure what constitutes suspense. I related Hitchcock’s adage about the bomb in the room. He always maintained that if he began a scene by showing the audience a bomb in the room and then clearly depicted where the bomb was in relationship to the characters, he would have the audience’s rapt attention for ten minutes. But, if he exploded the bomb as a surprise to the audience, they might be shocked out of their seats but he would have their attention for only ten seconds. Students rightly noticed examples of this technique in the scene in which we wait for Iris to notice the name “Froy” written on the window and during the scene in which Iris and Gilbert are about to ingest a spiked drink. The anticipation in both scenes created true suspense, and I think students came away with a better understanding of what that is.

The class seemed intrigued by the characters of Caldicott and Charters, the two cricket-obsessed friends who maintain their stiff upper lips no matter the situation. The students were surprised to learn that the pair proved to be so popular that they were featured in three later movies, Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour, and Millions Like Us. More than one wondered if the two were supposed to be gay, a logical assumption considering their depiction in the tiny hotel room. A perceptive student inquired if the two might be patterned after vaudeville archetypes of the day. Charters—or maybe it was Caldicott—got a big laugh from the class when he was shot in the hand but barely winced, keeping his stiff upper lip intact. We were charmed in the end when the two turn out to be courageous in the final gunfight with the pseudo-Nazis.

IRIS (CENTER) HAVING A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND TO MARRY

IRIS (CENTER) HAS A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND AS A SACRIFICE ON THE ALTAR OF MARRIAGE.

Several students found Iris’s ambivalence toward marriage amusing and fascinating. Iris leaves her friends to return to England to get married. She laments, “I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?” Later in the conversation, she complains about being an offering sacrificed on the altar of the church where she will be married. Some students suggested that the narrative had more to do with Iris’s internal conflict over marriage than it did with the spies’ goals; others noted a subtle condemnation of marriage as an institution that will clip the wings of those who say, “I do.”

A few students remarked about Hitchcock in general. Many were intrigued that deeper themes and meanings could be found beneath the entertaining surfaces of his films. Others revealed an appreciation for the director’s craftsmanship. For example: “It’s interesting that most films today have the shaky camera but Hitchcock’s methods work better.”

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

I had mentioned that Hitchcock was not considered an artist for most of his career; likewise, his films were not taken seriously until the members of the French New Wave sang his praises. This prompted one of my favorite observations: “It’s interesting that Hitchcock was underappreciated and that people didn’t get the meaning of his work. Usually that means that their work isn’t successful in its message, just like a painting or drawing. I think here it means that he was too good for his time and the people in that time.”

I find that those of us who love classic movies see their artistry and understand their cultural significance, but more importantly we realize that they carry an emotional impact that films from other eras simply can’t duplicate. We want younger generations to share in that experience, to understand the heart that these films can display. More often than not, conversations among film teachers do not focus on rare bits of history or esoteric discussions of subtext. Most of the time, we want to know: What did you show in class? How did it go over? There is an excitement when classic films are well received—like a victory for our common cause. I am gratified that The Lady Vanishes achieved such a victory and ever proud of my talented, perceptive students.

 

Happy Birthday William Wellman

blogopenerDirector William Wellman was born on this day, February 29, in 1896. That would make today his 120th birthday, or his 30th, depending on your feelings regarding leap year. Nicknamed Wild Bill because of his adventurous days as a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, Wellman led one of those audacious lives that makes for good storytellers. Wellman’s medium of choice for telling stories was the Hollywood film. Movie fans can celebrate Wild Bill’s birthday this week on TCM by watching three of his best-known films: Battleground (March 1, 10:00am, EST), Wild Boys of the Road (March 3, 5:00am, EST), and The Public Enemy (March 3, 8:30am, EST).

Though infamous for browbeating his actors and intimidating his actresses, Wellman is justly famous for his male-dominated action movies (The Public Enemy), adventures about men in adversity (Wings), or stories about the interaction of men within a group (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground). However, I prefer Wellman’s early melodramas featuring female protagonists who are down on their luck, down and out, or just down on love. Usually, these melodramas are not discussed as part of Wellman’s body of work; they are most often considered and assessed as pre-Code films.

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Douglas Slocombe: A Tribute

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You can enjoy some of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography tomorrow, February 26, when TCM airs Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 5:30 PM EST/2:30 PM PST.

Douglas Slocombe, the brilliant British cinematographer, died earlier this week at the ripe old age of 103. Slocombe’s filmography reveals that the skilled camera operator with a keen eye for composition worked on some of the best-looking films produced in the U.K. beginning in the 1940s at Ealing Studios until he retired following the completion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. During his long and impressive career, Slocombe was nominated for numerous honors including 3 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs and was awarded 6 times by the British Society of Cinematographers. Today I thought I would take a brief look back at the man’s life and celebrate his achievements with a gallery of images that showcase his talents.

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