The Perils of Colleen: Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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Lonely Rodeo: The Lusty Men (1952)

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The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.

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Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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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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On The Road: Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

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Though it was made in 1939, Dust Be My Destiny has the feel of a Warner Brothers production at the turn of the decade, with its story of a railroad tramp framed for murder. The recession of 1937-’38 had renewed fears of economic collapse, which made the old anxieties new again. John Garfield was getting increasingly frustrated at the roles he was being provided in his WB contract, as he was continually typecast as an ex-con or criminal type who is inevitably redeemed.  The character of Joe Bell in Dust Be My Destiny varies little from the template, which led Garfield to begin refusing roles, and he was punished with suspensions by the studio. The part of Bell was originally intended for James Cagney, and Garfield had become slotted as a kind of shadow Cagney, a pugnacious battler for the working class. Garfield’s politics certainly lined up with the political sentiments, but the material, he felt, was weak. Fellow lefty Robert Rossen adapted the screenplay for Dust Be My Destiny, but studio interference shifted a story intended as an anti-authoritarian Bonnie & Clyde-type tale into a conventional melodramatic romance. The failure of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) gave WB executives pause, causing the material from Jerome Odlum’s novel to be massaged into an unrecognizable shape. Dust Be My Destiny is a curious artifact in John Garfield’s brief, brilliant career, and is now available to view on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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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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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The People Versus Paul Crump

crumpcoverOne of the last projects that I worked on at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media before moving on to another phase of my life was the restoration and DVD release of William Friedkin’s The People Versus Paul Crump. While I was unable to see it through to fruition, my capable colleague Brian Elza did the heavy lifting to complete the mission. Only two known 16mm prints of The People Versus Paul Crump had survived. Four or five years ago, I discovered the worst print, which was in terrible shape, but Brian tracked down a better print after I left. He then steered the project through the high-definition transfer that was created from the second print. Thousands of scratches, splices, and pieces of dirt were removed to produce a clean digital version of a historically significant documentary that could have been lost forever. I am thrilled that the DVD streets tomorrow, May 27.

Most people know William Friedkin as the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Recently, he has received long-overdue acclaim for his under-rated action thriller Sorcerer, now available on Blu-Ray. However, few know that his first film was The People Versus Paul Crump, a 1962 documentary about a convicted murderer on death row. Originally shot for television though never aired, the documentary may seem like a relic from another era on initial viewing, but a deeper consideration reveals much more. It is a snapshot of the criminal justice system from another era and the calling card of a talented young director.  And, it played a role in saving a man’s life—for better or worse.

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Behind Bars: The Big House (1930)

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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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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Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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