LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

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]

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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Intimate Exposures: Marilyn Monroe in Photographs

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, which is the perfect occasion for a reevaluation of her films and career. There has been renewed attention in MM because of My Week with Marilyn, and there was a retrospective of her films last summer at BAMcinematek in NYC, but, somehow, I expected more. I keep waiting for a bona fide biographer or film historian to put her films and career into perspective and to address her star image in a post-feminist era. For example, no biography has ever adequately discussed her decision to form her own production company in order to take control of her roles and career. During the 1950s, when the studio system began disintegrating, top male stars from John Wayne to Burt Lancaster formed their own production companies for similar reasons, a fact much discussed in film histories. But, Monroe—one of the few female stars to do so—is never mentioned.

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Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

Please Note: In Tribute to Jackie Cooper, on Friday, May 13th TCM will broadcast nine of the actor’s films, which are listed here.

Jackie Cooper, who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor in a Leading Role when he was only nine,  died on May 3rd at the age of 88. His shy smile, seemingly artless candor, and innate ability to suggest an overwhelmed child’s desire to make everything all right in the world continues to make those who stumble on his films smile in recognition.

If your most vivid mental image of Jackie Cooper is still as one of the ragamuffins in Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, or the boy pleading with The Champ (1931-King Vidor) to rise again, or the privileged child befriending a kid from Shantytown in his Oscar-nominated performance in Skippy (1931-Norman Taurog), that’s understandable. Despite the fact that his early performances are eight decades in the past, his wonderfully natural portrayal of boys on film are still painfully fresh and have an evergreen realism at their core. In the darkest years of the Great Depression audiences felt a connection to that innocent, lion-hearted kid on screen whose life wasn’t going any more smoothly than their own. I like Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, and Freddie Bartholomew very much. I’ve been astounded by Mickey Rooney’s seemingly boundless talent. Yet to me, Jackie Cooper was one of most natural child actors, even though he had a different, understandably complex perspective on his own work. “I wasn’t great,” he claimed. “The directors were great. I was just a kid who did what he was told. And what I wasn’t told to do was done for me.”

His son, Russell Cooper, commented that his father “was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business. You can’t really say that about many people.” Looking back at Cooper‘s long life, when he acted in over a hundred movies, plays and television shows, and directed and produced over 250 TV projects, it seems that he may have done everything but sweep up the stage–and, as an apparently down-to-earth person–he probably did that at least a few times.

Much of Cooper‘s acting has a similar, recognizable quality, as he personified a kind of ragged moxie laced with a guileless intensity. Even when the stories were schmaltzy, he was not. As he grew up, and seemed likely to succumb to the neglect and adulation that early fame often breeds, he eventually approached his later problems with a similar ingenuousness as he struggled to become an adult in real ways. As he later pointed out about his childhood career, “I was trained to be a professional, not to be a person.”

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Conrad Veidt: “I am a wanderer”

“What are you?,” asks the blunt landlady when a new guest arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of her boarding house in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Filmgoers and filmmakers had been attempting to answer that question since they first spied this tall enigma in front of a camera, starting from the moment when Cesare the somnambulist opened his extraordinary eyes in the expressionist horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  “I am a wanderer,” Conrad Veidt’s nameless character replies quietly, reminding the viewer of his role as The Wandering Jew in an earlier Gaumont-British film, which marked what was roughly Veidt‘s one hundredth appearance on screen. “I live so out of the world,” he explains, further unsettling the chattering woman.

In truth, the cosmopolitan, German-born actor, whose birthday falls on Saturday, January 22nd, was very much “of the world,” involved in the tumult of his era, but able to hone his gifts to such a point of transcendence, he achieved an international stardom. He could illuminate humanity’s sinister side, but made viewers recognize the human being inside the often troubling characters he brought to life with such exquisite understanding. Ultimately, as Veidt’s friend and contemporary, producer Eric Pommer, once commented, “It is hard to say what was more to be admired in him, his artistry or his humanity.”

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Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

“I was born in and worked in a period that could be called enviable.” – Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis, who died on September 29th at age 85, never seemed to be at rest. Even in repose and in old age, he appeared to be an eternally restless spirit. Sometimes that drive got him into trouble, but it often spurred him to keep trying to be something more than he was at every stage of his existence on earth. He was a rascal, one of the last of his breed, and he became his life’s ambition since childhood: a very big movie star. He was also a good actor.

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Remembering Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper passed away yesterday morning at the age of 74 from complications related to prostate cancer (he’d been diagnosed with it late in 2009). That same morning I heard of the news from over 12 Facebook posts by friends, and from there the tally continued to climb. Somewhere, someone has surely come up with a formula that matches the speed and quantity with which news of a passing celebrity gets around along with a correlating chart mapping out their iconic status. Clearly, in  Dennis Hopper’s case, that iconic status was cemented over the years, and for different generations, by various roles that tapped perfectly into the zeitgeist.  [...MORE]

Borzage Through Fresh Eyes

Color me green with envy after reading all those positive reports from all over about the recent TCM Classic Film Festival. While giving friends who attended the third degree to extract every droplet of vicarious enjoyment from their accounts of that long, delirious weekend in LA, one of the things that stands out in their reporting is the mention of the large number of young people in the audience, as well as the “lifers,” (aka those of us who have been movie-mad since childhood).  Recently, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a youthful filmmaker who could be representative of this fresh wave of classic film lovers on the horizon.

From the viewpoint of most of us, Rebecca Bozzo, a twenty-something graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, is already a working film professional, but her ebullient enthusiasm for what she describes as  the  “collaborative energy” of movie making has an infectious quality that blends real knowledge and a joyous passion, even as she describes the sometimes arduous but invigorating process of collaboration with diverse people. Growing up in a household where her supportive parents exposed her to great films from Hitchcock, Cukor, Stevens, and Minnelli, her father was particularly involved in the National Film Society efforts to preserve films. With this cinematically aware family background, a growing desire to be a part of the film industry as a director and producer almost seems inevitable.

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A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.

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The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.

The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.

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