Margaret Lockwood is The Wicked Lady (1945)

WICKED LADY, THE (1945)

To view The Wicked Lady click here.

“I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them!”
- Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood) in The Wicked Lady (1945)

During WWII, many British citizens were desperate for movies that allowed them to forget about the destruction and mayhem engulfing the world. Against the backdrop of war, it’s not surprising that female film viewers began flocking to historic melodramas offering a momentary escape. The horrors of modern combat were left at the ticket counter while audiences immersed themselves in another time and place. Gainsborough Pictures was at the forefront of this trend buoyed by a stable of attractive and talented actors that included James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc, Michael Rennie and Margret Lockwood. Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes [1938], Night Train to Munich [1940], Cast a Dark Shadow [1955]) was Gainsborough’s most popular female performer and although she never had much success in Hollywood, the actress became a household name in Britain during the 1940s. Her voluptuous beauty attracted both sexes but women were particularly drawn to the strong-willed characters she portrayed and her most successful film was The Wicked Lady (1945), which is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck.

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A Poet’s Life: Pyaasa (1957)

PYAASA (1957)

Guru Dutt is a tragic figure in Bollywood history, a tremendously talented actor and filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 39. He was able to direct eight films before his passing, the most famous of which is Pyaasa (1957), an intensely moving melodrama about a struggling poet, Vijay (played by Dutt). It is a movie about failure, as Vijay’s poems are roundly rejected, while his vagabond lifestyle alienates him from his immediate family. Broke and depressed, Vijay wanders the lower depths of the city and finds the first honest people he’s ever met, they just happen to be prostitutes and hucksters. As proper society would rather he disappear, Vijay pursues his art anyway, to destructive and unpredictable consequences. Filmed with a delirious mobility, the camera is always dollying from long distances into huge closeups, the distance between two unrequited lovers closed by the lens. With sinuous, unforgettable music by S.D. Burman and evocatively nihilistic Urdu poetry by Sahir Ludhianvi, FilmStruck is streaming Pyaasa as part of its “Classic Bollywood” package, and if you are looking to start exploring Bollywood cinema, this is a wise place to begin.

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The Opera Ghost Requests Your Presence

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It’s October, and you know what that means: spooky movies all month long! Every horror fan of a certain age has a favorite movie monster they first encountered as a child: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For me it was the Phantom of the Opera, whom I met in a number of cinematic guises before I was out of elementary school. The combination of grotesque horror, cliffhanger thrills, and doomed romance is like catnip to an impressionable young viewer.  Now it’s a fine chance to make the Phantom’s acquaintance right now, since TCM’s running the Lon Chaney silent version on October 7, and Herbert Lom’s turn in 1962 just made its Blu-ray bow in a sparkling new presentation as part of Universal’s Hammer horror set.

So here we go with a few thoughts about the many faces of the Phantom we’ve seen over the past century, and what’s remarkable about this seemingly immortal character is the fact that every significant movie adaptation has turned out to have something of value. [...MORE]

Minnelli, Mitchum, Melodrama, and Masculinity

bloghomeopenDirector Vincente Minnelli was experiencing a career peak in 1959 when he chose the melodrama Home from the Hill as his next project. His musical Gigi had just swept the Oscars, and his previous film, the melodrama Some Came Running, had earned critical acclaim. However, Home from the Hill, which airs on TCM tomorrow, June 28, would prove to be the last Minnelli film to turn a reasonable profit, earning almost $6 million at the box office. After this film, his creativity seemed to decline as he turned to pedestrian if still enjoyable fare.

Much speculation exists regarding Minnelli’s sexual orientation, which scholars use to explain his interest in stories about male identity and masculinity. I am always leery of making simple, cause-and-effect connections between a director’s personal life and his themes, but I concede that this topic recurs in his films. Those issues are obvious in Home from the Hill, which is the story of the Hunnicutt family. Patriarch Wade Hunnicutt owns a successful business, a large home, and many acres of land in a small Texas town, but he is a failure as a husband and father. Wade is estranged from his wife Hannah, who maintains separate bedrooms because of his flagrant infidelity. She has raised their son, Theron, to be gentle, cultured, and sensitive, which is the opposite of Wade’s uber-masculine persona. Meanwhile Wade respects and admires his illegitimate son Rafe Copley, employing him for various services, but he refuses to acknowledge the young man as his offspring.

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Happy Birthday William Wellman

blogopenerDirector William Wellman was born on this day, February 29, in 1896. That would make today his 120th birthday, or his 30th, depending on your feelings regarding leap year. Nicknamed Wild Bill because of his adventurous days as a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, Wellman led one of those audacious lives that makes for good storytellers. Wellman’s medium of choice for telling stories was the Hollywood film. Movie fans can celebrate Wild Bill’s birthday this week on TCM by watching three of his best-known films: Battleground (March 1, 10:00am, EST), Wild Boys of the Road (March 3, 5:00am, EST), and The Public Enemy (March 3, 8:30am, EST).

Though infamous for browbeating his actors and intimidating his actresses, Wellman is justly famous for his male-dominated action movies (The Public Enemy), adventures about men in adversity (Wings), or stories about the interaction of men within a group (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground). However, I prefer Wellman’s early melodramas featuring female protagonists who are down on their luck, down and out, or just down on love. Usually, these melodramas are not discussed as part of Wellman’s body of work; they are most often considered and assessed as pre-Code films.

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Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Appassionata: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

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“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

 In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.

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We have the stars

Now, Voyager

(This article was written on Sep. 20th while visiting family in Lake Tahoe, and scheduled to post on Sep. 21. It was scuttled by a server malfunction and is here revisited in the spirit of “better late than never.”)

The etymology of “smother” is based on old German and Dutch words for “smolder,” and are connected to evocations of thick and suffocating smoke. But for those watching Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) tomorrow on TCM, there will probably be more than just a few viewers who might think the etymological root really comes from simply adding the letter “s” to “mother.” This thanks to the performance by Gladys Cooper as the tyrannical matriarch lording over every detail in her daughter’s life. The performance earned Cooper a nomination for Supporting Oscar. [...MORE]

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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Joan Crawford in The Best of Everything (1959)

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THE BEST OF EVERYTHING airs on TCM Jan. 30th

I love a good Hollywood melodrama. Particularly full-color big-budget melodramas that directors such as Douglas Sirk (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, IMITATION OF LIFE), Mark Robson (PEYTON PLACE, FROM THE TERRACE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Delmer Daves (A SUMMER PLACE, SUSAN SLADE, ROME ADVENTURE) dished out in the 1950s and 60s. Critics often refer to these movies as “women’s pictures” or “weepies” but that trite description tends to put them in a corner or a small box and the movies are often much too big and multifaceted to be shoehorned into a simple one-size-fits all package. Last year I re-watched many of my favorite mid-century melodramas and caught up with a few I hadn’t seen before including Jean Negulesco’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959), which features the one and only Joan Crawford in a small but standout role as Amanda Farrow, a cutthroat editor working at a New York publishing firm.

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