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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Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Secret of Madame Blanche

blancheopenerThough quite popular among film-goers from the silent era through the 1950s, the melodrama has rarely gotten much respect from critics and scholars. A slippery genre to define, it is usually identified through its excessive emotion, suffering heroines, focus on relationships, and foregrounding of female interests, points of view, and values. During the Golden Age, movie reviewers—most of whom were male—regularly dismissed “weepies,” or women’s films. Today, melodrama has completely disappeared from the big screen, and the word “melodramatic” is often used as a pejorative term. Melodrama would likely not appeal to young audiences jaded by the computer-generated imagery of fantasy films or to mature audiences accustomed to serious dramas in the realist style. The artificiality that defines the acting, plotting, and visual style of melodrama is antithetical to today’s natural acting styles and realistic storylines.

While Golden Age stalwarts such as Stella Dallas, Now Voyager, Dark Victory, or The Women, get their due as classics, lesser-known melodramas like The Secret of Madame Blanche might be a harder sell. But, Madame Blanche, which airs on TCM this Thursday at 4:45pm, is a solid example of both the melodrama’s conventions and strengths. Viewers should not be put off by the genre’s peculiarities or artifice.

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The Grating American Novel: Youngblood Hawke (1964)

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If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.

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Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

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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]

The Story of Film: The Crowd (1928)

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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.

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You Were Meant For Me: Penny Serenade (1941)

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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.

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Heat Waves: A Summer Place (1959)

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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.

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Picnic-ing

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.

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