The Last Picture Show

Bogdanovich Last Picture Show

“I thought you might want to go to the picture show. Miss Mosey is having to close it. Tonight’s the last night.” – Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)

How is it that nobody has done a modern version of The Last Picture Show? I realize that Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, is about much more than Miss Mosey having to close down the movie theater due to dwindling business and the rise of television, but let’s face it: the death of the Royal Theater in a small town, circa 1952, serves as a larger emblem of the many chapters in life that open and close for the characters of Anarene, Texas. It does so in ways that are understandable for anyone going through adolescence, their mid-life, and even death. Still: so much is implied by the four simple words of the title that it’s no surprise the book caught the eye of someone like Bogdanovich.

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

mfalcon

If you watch TCM regularly you’re probably aware that the classic movie channel is curating the upcoming event What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction being organized by Bonhams. This highly anticipated auction is taking place November 25th in New York where interested bidders as well as curious film fans can also see a preview of the items on display beginning November 20th and running through November 25th. According to the official press release the auction features “a stunning array of costumes, props, scripts, production designs, production memos, movie posters and other rare treasures from some of the greatest films of all time.” And the crown jewel of the lot is the original falcon statue used in THE MALTESE FALCON (1945), which may fetch a hefty seven figure sum. And best of all? A portion of the auction proceeds will be going to The Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by director Martin Scorsese to preserve and protect motion picture history.

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Too Much Johnson: Becoming Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten in Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

A missing piece of the puzzle in Orson Welles‘ career could be found at The George Eastman House in Rochester, NY last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of fortunate film lovers witnessed a bit of cinematic history at the North American premiere of the recently restored work print that comprises Too Much Johnson in The Dryden Theatre on October 16th. Never completed by the wondrously ambitious, over-scheduled, and often under-financed young Welles, the real beginnings of the prodigy’s love affair with movies can be glimpsed in these three chaotic, often funny and engaging silent scenes, alive with the raw curiosity of Welles with a new toy and the high spirits of his talented company of players. Too Much Johnson doesn’t have the astonishing verve or visual polish of Citizen Kane or the depth of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the existence of this film confirms the remarkable creativity pouring from Welles during his early career.

Welles had made a surreal, striking eight minute film, The Hearts of Age (1934) while still in his teens, experimenting with makeup, technical effects and symbolism, but his eye and enchantment with the medium’s real possibilities jumps off the screen when viewing the disparate images in Too Much Johnson, even today. Long believed lost, the last copy of this unfinished film was thought to have been consumed (“rosebud”-like) in a fire in 1970 at the Welles home in Madrid, Spain until it was found five years ago in Italy. How these films wound up moldering away, neglected and unknown in a warehouse in Italy is still a mystery.

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 3

hwood3lamarr2Back by popular demand is another installment of “Searching for Old Hollywood” based on my recent trek to Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for clues to uncover some unique or forgotten insight into the lives of big-name stars and other celebrities. The first part focused on the final resting places of lesser-known film industry figures, while the second spotlighted the legendary stars of Old Hollywood’s romantic and often notorious past. As with the first two parts, I wanted to find a thread to tie together the figures for this final installment. I decided to focus on epitaphs and inscriptions.

The grave markers of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, and John Huston are across the lane from each other. The ghoulish television hostess and legendary director have nothing in common save for their markers, which display imagery that provides clues to their lives. Nurmi hosted her program of old horror movies on KABC-TV for only a year, but she parlayed the publicity into a career, more or less. Vampira became Nurmi’s contribution to popular culture, and her only claim to fame; when Cassandra Peterson came too close to her act with the character Elvira, Nurmi unsuccessfully sued. Nurmi died alone and broke on January 10, 2008, her decomposing body found by an acquaintance. With no named next of kin, red tape prevented her from being interred until February 17, when her cremated remains were buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Loyal fans spent a year throwing fundraisers to secure the money for a gravestone that befitted her image. Erected in July, 2009, it reads “Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008, Vampira, Hollywood Legend,” and includes an etching of her wearing that tattered gothic gown, which showed off her legendary 17-inch waist. In other words, the gravestone features all the signifiers to her image that a fan would want to remember. (On a personal note, I discovered that Nurmi, who was born in Finland, spent her youth in the Finnish community in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio.)

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 1

Hollywood-Forever-Cemetery-600x399Last year when I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, I was hoping to find remnants of the film industry’s mythic, glamorous past.  But, Hollywood’s enchanted past is well hidden beneath a tacky veneer of souvenir shops, never-ceasing traffic, noisy crowds, shiny modern buildings, and those would-be “actors” costumed as movie superheroes who stroll up and down Hollywood Boulevard. With the help of some research, I did find the ghosts of Old Hollywood, which lifted my spirits and reminded me that the past is always a part of the present, even if we don’t immediately see it. This year, I went in search of Old Hollywood once again, and some of the “ghosts” I found were literal ones, because I spent an afternoon in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

vera three little words

Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.

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Nudie Cohn: “It’s Better to Be Looked Over than Overlooked.”

nudieopenerI love Old Hollywood. In my imagination, I have romanticized the Hollywood of the Golden Age as a glamorous era of larger-than-life, charismatic figures who linger poolside at the best hotels or dance till dawn at the Mocambo. On the fringes of the dream factory are the outrageous characters who thrive in a company town where the extraordinary is ordinary and the extravagant is routine. Among the latter is the famous Nudie Cohn, tailor to the stars. But, Nudie was no studio costumer like Edith Head or Orry-Kelly. Instead, he owned and operated Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, specializing in western-styled jackets and wildly colored shirts festooned with rhinestones and piping. His primary clients were western movie stars of the Golden Age and country-western singers of the l960s, but his career lasted well into the Age of Aquarius, when he designed a jacket with marijuana leaves for Gram Parsons.

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Happy 100th, Danny!

dkportrait

I haven’t been around here in a while, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to wish success to TCM’s Danny Kaye 100th Birthday celebration all day this coming Sunday — tomorrow.  As I showed in several posts in the past, I’ve been a Danny Kaye connoisseur nearly all my life, since the days I used to skip junior high to watch his movies on TV during the day (this is pre-VCR and DVR, although I used to record the soundtracks on reel-to-reel tape!).  I bought my first copies of those “Movies on TV” books because of Danny, too, because I wanted to go through and find all his movies.  Little did I know then that he only made 17, but we are fortunate that TCM will be bringing us a good selection of those on Sunday, plus some rare TV goodies.

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Movies About the Movies

The highly anticipated Hitchcock opens the AFI Film Festival on November 1. Based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the drama interprets the behind-the-scenes production of one of the 20th century’s most influential films. I have not seen a trailer for the film, but based on the publicity stills, the makeup on star Anthony Hopkins results in an uncanny likeness of Hitchcock. Writer-director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil; scriptwriter for The Terminal) lacks a sufficient track record to predict the quality of the drama, but Hopkins is sure to offer an interesting interpretation of the Master of Suspense. In addition to Hitchcock, a film called The Girl, which focuses on the director’s relationship with Tippi Hedren, is in the works. Toby Jones stars as Hitchcock, and Sienna Miller costars as Hedren.

Hitchcock and The Girl belong to that genre generally described as “movies about the movies,” a category irresistible to most film lovers. In doing research for this blog article, I was surprised at the diversity of the films that fall into this genre. There are biopics about beloved actors (Man of a Thousand Faces; The Story of Will Rogers); biopics that examine the adverse effect of Hollywood on the individual, particularly the star system and publicity machine (Frances; Harlow); dark exposes of those industry insiders corrupted by fame and power (Sunset Boulevard; A Star Is Born; The Bad and the Beautiful; Hollywoodland); and comic musings about the nature or history of Hollywood filmmaking (Sherlock, Jr.; Singin’ in the Rain).

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The $30,000 Question

Last week I began a cycle of talking through how the transition to talkies affected the development of American screen comedy, and to continue in this vein we need to take a moment to talk through what that transition was all about.  The Jazz Singer has persisted in posterity and popular memory far in excess of the merits of its actual content–it is however remembered as a revolutionary picture, one that precipitated a sudden reorientation of the industry.  But the real story behind the switch to talkies is messier–and doesn’t have much of anything to do with The Jazz Singer.  It is instead a story about the dynamics of format wars.

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