A Man and a Maid: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

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In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.

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Fighting Spirit: Kung Fu Killer (2015) and Skin Trade (2015)

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The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars.  Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA (click for showtimes near you), it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.

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Orson Welles at One Hundred

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Part man, part myth and part mystery. 100 years after his birth, Orson Welles remains a towering figure in cinema history and a difficult character to pin down. Welles’ immeasurable talents, larger than life personality and elusive nature along with the countless unfinished projects he left behind have made him a favorite subject of filmmakers, historians, writers and film enthusiasts who’ve worked tirelessly to keep Hollywood’s enfant terrible in the spotlight since his death in 1985. Throughout the month of May, TCM is taking up the torch and placing Welles in their popular Friday Night Spotlight hosted by film critic David Edelstein. For the next 5 weeks, viewers will be able to see Welles’ most revered and beloved films including CITIZEN KANE (1941), THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), THE STRANGER (1946), A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), MR. ARKADIN (1962), THE TRIAL (1963), OTHELLO (1952) and MACBETH (1948) as well as many films that Welles appeared in such as THE THIRD MAN (1949), JANE EYRE (1944) , THE V.I.P.S. (1963) and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966). Subscribers will also get to enjoy the debut of the director’s silent comedy, TOO MUCH JOHNSON (1938) and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1967), which Welles considered to be his finest work.

In celebration of Orson Welles’ Centennial, I thought I would take a look ahead and highlight some of the events that are being planned to honor the man as well as the various new books, DVD and Blu-ray releases that will become available in the coming months. Welles’ fans like myself will be able to indulge in a variable smorgasbord of cinematic treats in 2015 that should satisfy his most ardent admirers and even intrigue the most weary Welles’ skeptics.

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Horseplay: Black Midnight (1949)

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In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall  – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.

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Organization Man: Odd Man Out (1947)

4082_odd_man_out_(1947)movie_Odd Man Out has an absence at its center. It stars James Mason as a revolutionary in Northern Ireland, but he is either missing or comatose for the majority of its running time. A scattered group of fringe players search for his body, from IRA fellow travelers to middle-class families to eccentric bird merchants. What emerges is a portrait of a stunned post-WWII Belfast, tired of violence but in no hurry to pass Mason off to the cops. It is either sympathy or indolence that keeps him alive, as his husk is passed from alley to bar and finally, to the docks. The city’s cavernous, emptied out streets are the setting for Mason’s absolution. For though he is a murderer, Mason’s beatific, radiant performance gives his character a saintly aura, as if taking on the sins of the post-war world. Though it has overshadowed the lower-budgeted Brit-noirs of this period (which are in need of reclamation), Odd Man Out is more than worthy of its reputation. Earlier this month it received the Criterion treatment, released in a new HD restoration on DVD and Blu-ray, with their usual array of copious extras, including a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

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Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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Uninvited Guest: Stranger at my Door (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Run All Night (2015)

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Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.

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February 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.

That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.

None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.

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KEYWORDS: Betty Grable, Preston Sturges, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend
COMMENTS: 4
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Leisen-m
February 14, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball Part 2: The Trouble with Mitchell

Once upon a time there was a Hollywood director at the top of his game. He made movies that were widely popular, influential, critically esteemed, and profitable. He was a visual stylist and a practitioner of high Hollywood glamour. He coaxed great performances from top stars. He was on the short list for producers looking to staff their prestige pictures.

But say the name “Mitchell Leisen” today and be prepared for blank stares. I wager that many of the classic movie buffs who would spend their Saturday mornings reading this blog are unlikely to have much beyond a passing familiarity with his name.

So what happened? How did someone who flew so high fall into such obscurity? Ironically, the answer is his own success.

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KEYWORDS: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Easy Living, Midnight, Mitchell Leisen
COMMENTS: 11
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