Carnal Knowledge

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TCM will be highlighting films by Ann-Margret this Thursday. The memory of her basking in a spray of beans and chocolate as she then makes love to a man-sized, hotdog-shaped pillow are so well-seared into any young stoner’s mind that I was tempted to write about Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). However there is something in the air right now that pointed me, instead, toward Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971). It has to do with a perennial hot-button topic that will never go away as long as humans are around, be it Elvis’ gyrating hips in 1957 or whatever Miley Cyrus is licking right now: Sex. Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015), for example, is currently well on its way toward raking in over $100 million and is getting a lot of ink for Amy Schumer’s portrayal of a sexually liberated woman who grows up thinking monogamy isn’t realistic. It would be nice to think that we’ve come a long way since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977), which portrayed the drama of a free-spirited and promiscuous woman (Diane Keaton) as a slippery slope into inevitable tragedy. But it was scarcely two weeks ago that a deranged religious extremist with a gun in Lafayette, Louisiana, picked a screening of Trainwreck for an act of terrorism. [...MORE]

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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How steve mcqueen blew it on a movie that almost had stampeding elephants, and other stories behind CALIFORNIA SPLIT

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I spent the Labor Day weekend at the 41st Telluride Film Festival. There were many highlights, but at the top of my list was a 35mm print screening of California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), which was presented by TCM. And, no, I’m not just sucking up to the folks who sign my paycheck on this one, because if you search “California Split” on the Morlock site you’ll see that I refer to it in a 12.30.12 post as a title I’ve been wanting to watch for quite a while. Since writing that post I did purchase an out-of-print DVD that then proceeded to collect dust along about 100 other “must-watch” titles that currently sit on a bookshelf near my entertainment system. In retrospect, I’m glad it got lost in the shuffle. Why? Because thanks to Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin (this year’s Guest Directors at Telluride), I got to see a nice, uncut, Panavision print of California Split that was followed by a very entertaining Q&A with actors George Segal and  Joseph Walsh (who was also its producer and wrote the script based on many autobiographical elements). Frosting on the cake? The film print is three minutes longer than the DVD, due to legal issues involving musical clearances (strange how the ubiquitous “happy birthday” song can cause so many problems). I want to give an additional shout-out to both Morgan and Maddin for the excellent lineup of other selected films, which included A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933), Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), and Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse, 1953). The fact that all of these titles were screened on 35mm film and are each rare and off-the-beaten-path works worthy of a future lengthy post is testimony to both a great film festival and inspired curators. But, for now, let’s get back to California Split, and the story behind how it was almost appropriated by Steven Spielberg, Dean Martin, and a pack of rampaging elephants.  [...MORE]

Father and Son: The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974)

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The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.

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Movin’ On Up: Alice Adams (1935)

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The careers of Katharine Hepburn and George Stevens were forever altered by the flip of a coin. Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman had acquired the rights to make a film version of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Alice Adams for RKO. In an oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal story, they had whittled their choice of directors down to two: William Wyler and George Stevens. The coin ended up in Stevens’ favor. The film would snap Hepburn’s box-office losing streak and net her a Best Actress nomination, while the heretofore unknown Stevens would become an A-list director for decades to come. The movie, which Warner Archive has re-issued on DVD, is a bittersweet portrait of a restless Middle American girl, a working class busybody who yearns to become a sophisticated debutante and is mocked for her efforts. The patrician Hepburn is cast against type as an everyday gal, and she delivers a charmingly gawky performance of a girl masking her insecurities with constant patter and twirlingly nervous fingers. Stevens keeps everything grounded in his patient, unassuming 1930s style, capturing Alice’s many humiliations and recoveries in a slow-burning rubato tempo.

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Bad Girl in Bangor: Hedy Lamarr in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946)

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The name Edgar G. Ulmer elicits images of the dusty roads of Detour and the empty pockets of its Poverty Row producers. He was a prolific purveyor of B-movie jolts, used to finding creative solutions to monetary limitations, but on occasion he was called up by the big studio boys, where the budgets were the least of his concerns. For The Strange Woman, out on a decent-looking DVD from the public domain label Film Chest, it was the leading studio gal Hedy Lamarr who gave him the opportunity. The Strange Woman was a salacious 1941 hit novel by Ben Ames Williams (who later wrote Leave Her to Heaven) about a poor, power hungry small-town beauty. Lamarr thought it provided an opportunity to, “do something other than merely be a clotheshorse or look pretty. I have always wanted to do character parts, and this gives me the chance I have been waiting for so long.” So she formed a production company, Mars Film Corp., with producer Jack Chertok, and secured distribution through United Artists. Lamarr met Ulmer on the set of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), when she was visiting her then-husband and lead actor John Loder. Ulmer and Lamarr had both trained with Max Reinhardt, and perhaps this slender bond led her to select him as the director. Their collaboration was combative and tense, though The Strange Woman ended up a modest box office success, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Unusually frank about how Lamarr’s character uses sex to get ahead, The Strange Woman is a nineteenth century variation on the pre-code jaw-dropper Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck climbs the corporate ladder on her back.

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LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

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Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless, yes!

Once upon a time I saw a movie. It was called Ruthless and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer. The experience was like watching a coin land on its side–it was thrilling, and also largely unrepeatable. I was watching the UCLA restored print of Ruthless, at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Theater, but knowing that the only available home video version was a crapola grunge-fest barely worth free.

For years I hunted this movie. Every time I logged into Amazon I ran a search, just in the off-chance the restored version had a commercial release. The years passed, and my hopes faded. I stopped checking. And then I discovered that Olive Films had released it on Blu-Ray. There was joy in Mudville.

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Do you love this movie, too? Or have you suffered in the darkness, without even knowing what joys await? Click below the fold, and let’s explore Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece together.

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Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive

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In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 2)

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This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

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