Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 17, 2013
What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder. [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 10, 2013
Earlier this month Turner Classic Movies began airing The Story of Film, a 15-chapter documentary by Mark Cousins tracking the history of the moving image from 1895 – 2000s. Running from now through December, TCM will also air 52 movies that Cousins mentions in his work. To coincide with The Story of Film Chapter 2: 1918 – 1928, tonight TCM will air everything from Nanook of the North (1922, 8PM) to King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928, 2AM). While Nanook was recently issued on Blu-Ray, The Crowd is only available on out-of-print VHS, so this airing is a rare opportunity to see it in a decent edition. George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog Marketing at WB, recently wrote that the home video future of The Crowd depends on the sales of Vidor’s The Big Parade, which comes out on October 1st. It was originally because of the The Big Parade’s massive success that Vidor was allowed to make the smaller, artier The Crowd, so maybe it will have the same effect on WB executives today. Like Murnau’s Sunrise (’27) or Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (’28), The Crowd depicts the trials of the everyday with expressionistic intensity, proving that the working man is as worthy of tragedy as royalty.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 20, 2013
Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens. Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-Ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 23, 2013
The infernal weather system that soaked the Northeast in sweat this past week was moving backwards. In the United States these systems usually travel west to east, but this persistent “dome of hot air” was traveling in reverse. I feel a kinship with this contrarian gasbag, so in its honor I will look back at an undervalued movie set during summer. A Summer Place (1959) is mainly remembered for birthing the #1 instrumental single by Percy Faith (adapted from the Max Steiner score), but it was a sensation at the time for its frank discussion of sex. It marked a transition in director Delmer Daves’ career from macho action-adventure films into melodramatic women’s pictures, one of the more reviled shifts in film history. He completed his twilight Western The Hanging Tree in August of 1958, and made four candy-colored romance pictures for WB afterward. Dismissed by both critics (the NY Times memorably called it “garishly sex-scented…. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste”) and ardent admirers (Jean-Pierre Coursodon called this period “dangerously close to artistic suicide”) , today they are ripe for rediscovery. A Summer Place is bursting with erotic energy that spreads out in the Technicolor widescreen frame, and treats adultery and teen sex with a forthright shrug.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 24, 2012
The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.
Posted by Susan Doll on July 25, 2011
During post-WWII Hollywood, film noir emerged to reflect, represent, and even romanticize the corruption, dissatisfaction, and cynicism lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy and optimism that America so desperately clung to after a hard-fought war. A pessimistic genre that is dark in theme and visual design, film noir critiqued or challenged America’s social institutions—law and order, the justice system, marriage and family—in contrast to most genres, which support or propagate them. But, the world of film noir is a man’s world; the male protagonist investigates crime outside the home, through the dark streets, and into the seedy clubs and businesses of the city. His prowess as a man and his judgment as a detective are challenged as the genre plays with traditional gender roles and reveals an unstoppable social and political decay; in other words, if the corruption doesn’t get the ill-fated protagonist, the femme fatale will.
With its similar visual style, casts of twisted individuals, and perverted male-female relationships, postwar melodrama is a kind of doppelganger genre to film noir. The primary differences are in the settings and in the gender of the protagonists. I had never really compared the two genres until my friend Lisa Wright and I took a class this summer titled “Home Noir: Domestic Melodramas of the 1940s.” The class was part of Facets Film School, which offers a variety of six-week film courses on specific topics, and it was taught by film scholar Therese Grisham. Therese was terrific at offering just the right amount of lecture to stimulate the class’s powers of observation and interpretation, so the discussions after the movies were lively, spirited conversations. As Lisa noted, “. . .we live in a time where we are used to seeing films mostly alone or with a friend or spouse. Getting so many interesting and diverging opinions about what we saw enhanced the enjoyment.”
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 8, 2011
Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.
Posted by Moira Finnie on January 26, 2011
“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.”
Posted by Moira Finnie on December 15, 2010
If you are worried about sugar shock over the next few weeks and think you could snap if one more person asks you to be merry, New York Confidential (1955) may be just the kind of movie that might save your sanity. There’s little sweetness or sentiment in this movie about an underworld organization called “The Syndicate,” (The Mafia and La Cosa Nostra are never mentioned, though characters drop everything when a call from Italy comes through). There is some humor and a story that influenced some memorable off-shoots, including the noteworthy television series, The Untouchables and the movie, The Godfather (1972), as well as a brief television series of the same name that was on display in the late ’50s. One of the blurbs for this 86 minute film, (a portion of which can be seen below in the trailer), opens with a shot of the New York skyline, followed by some Gershwinesque chords on the piano, and a stentorian narrator declares that “The syndicate still exists. The rules still hold. This is how the cartel works. This is New York Confidential!”
Writer-Director Russell Rouse (D.O.A., The Thief, Wicked Woman, The Fastest Gun Alive), made New York Confidential (1955), an admittedly seedy, but quite entertaining film, inspired by the Kefauver hearings in Congress on organized crime in 1950-51. This was a period when the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, was studiously ignoring the existence of a criminal network while eagerly looking under beds for Commie sympathizers. The movie, written by Rouse and Clarence Greene, was “suggested” by the best-selling book written by those truth-telling twins of tabloid journalism, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. The pair made a cottage industry out of these books in the ’40s and ’50s, cranking out some hard facts, as well as lots of squirrelly, often right wing sensationalism in one hot seller after another, U.S.A.: Confidential, Chicago: Confidential, and Washington: Confidential–all of them promising to rip the veil of respectability from various civic cesspools. Not to make anyone on the planet feel left out, Around the World Confidential and Women: Confidential were penned by Mortimer after Jack Lait transferred to the big city room in the sky in 1954.*
Thanks to Kit Parker Films (a company that specializes in unearthing “orphan films”), this long out-of-circulation Edward Small production was restored and released earlier this year on DVD by VCI Entertainment. Two of the dark angels from the Film Noir Foundation, writer and film historian Alan K. Rode and author Kim Morgan provide an informative and lively commentary on the DVD of the movie, discussing the actors, story, filmmakers and quirks of this often slyly amusing film, which was clearly made on a shoestring–though the top drawer cast and acting never lets the viewer down. Visually it is not impressive, with flat, almost claustrophobic sets and no extended scenes set in the great outdoors, but the top notch cast, led by Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte, J. Carrol Naish, Anne Bancroft and Marilyn Maxwell expands the film’s B movie soul beyond the limits of the sometimes uneven script.
Posted by Moira Finnie on December 8, 2010
“Looking at [Ann] Harding,” wrote film historian Mick LaSalle in his book, Complicated Women (St. Martin’s, 2001), “is like looking into clear, deep water. Nothing stands in the way. No stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.”
These are some of the words that inspired Scott O’Brien, author of Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady (BearManor) in his research into the career and life of actress Ann Harding (1902-1981). For those who met her during the height of her Hollywood career, she left starkly different impressions. Laurence Olivier called her “an angel.” Henry Hathaway said that she “was an absolute bitch.” Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.” Ann Harding may not be as well-remembered as actresses whose stellar careers extended well beyond the pre-code era, such as Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. Her natural reserve means that her name does not automatically come up when particularly saucy favorites of the period like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell or Dorothy Mackail are discussed. Powerful icons whose last name conjures something singular, such as Garbo, Dietrich and West, are better remembered. In recent years, in large part because of the rediscovery of her early films on Turner Classic Movies, occasional revivals of her movies and the work done by film historians reassessing the pre-code period, Harding has begun to captivate audiences again. Her lustrous beauty and surprisingly modern style of acting are only part of her appeal.
With the publication earlier this year of Scott O’Brien’s beautifully illustrated and well written biography, a balanced portrait of a skilled actress emerges, as well as some sense of the publicly guarded but privately intense woman behind her fame. Recently, I had a chance to ask the author of this meticulously researched and long overdue biography of Ann Harding about his interest in this unique, transitional figure in American film. Perhaps after reading this post a few more people who have yet to discover her work will pause next time one of her rarely seen films, such as Devotion (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Double Harness (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Flame Within (1935) or Peter Ibbetson (1935) emerges from the movie vault. This often surprisingly modern actress may intrigue and touch you with her presence. You might find yourself unexpectedly enthralled.
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