Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on April 14, 2016
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.
Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 10, 2016
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.
Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 8, 2016
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.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 3, 2016
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]
Posted by Susan Doll on March 28, 2016
In 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.
Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 27, 2016
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.
Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 25, 2016
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?!
Posted by Susan Doll on March 21, 2016
Recently, 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).”
Posted by Susan Doll on March 14, 2016
Each 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.
Posted by Susan Doll on March 7, 2016
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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