Digging Through the Warner Archive: Wild Rovers and Restored Minnelli

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.

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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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Confidentially

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.

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Ann Harding: A Q & A with Biographer Scott O’Brien

“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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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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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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Elliot Lavine Still Dreams in Black and White

Asking Elliot Lavine to talk about his favorite film noirs is a little like asking a parent of many different children to describe what he loves about his babies. If you are anywhere near San Francisco in the next few weeks, you may want to hightail it over to the newly remodeled Roxie Theater in the Mission district for a chance to admire some of his neglected favorites–Elliot‘s nearly forgotten, “cheap, lowdown and tawdry” stepchildren, consisting of 28 rarely screened B noirs from the Poverty Row Studios. These movies will be on display from Friday, May 14th through Thursday, May 27th in a program entitled I STILL Wake Up Dreaming: Noir is Dead! / Long Live Noir! A complete list of these movies is posted at the end of this blog with links to the Roxie for times and ticket information.  A few days ago, Elliot was kind enough to submit to a grilling from me about all things film noir…

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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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My Month With the Hapsburgs

Now that Spring is here, I can look back on this event with amusement as I recall Daniel Webster’s comment that there “is nothing so powerful as truth—and often nothing so strange” Ain’t it the truth?:
The Real and the Imaginary Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837-1898)

The Scene: My Living Room

The Time: The Late Winter Doldrums

The Occasion: An Intervention

The Participants: My Loved Ones

What prompted this intervention by my family?  Shuffling into the living room, none of my near and dear ones seemed to want to meet my eye. As they gently explained, it was time to remember that I’m an American living in the 21st century. “Chuck this new-found interest in moldy royalty, and, well, get back to reality.” Sure, sure, I knew they were right, but still…

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Helen Walker: A Well Kept Secret Part II

This is the second part of a profile of actress Helen Walker. The first part can be seen here.

“No wonder so many actors are out of work,…considering all the lousy scripts the agents hand you…with such big build-ups. They’re nearly all tripe. The dialogue is all the same. Everything’s been done before. I’ve read 15 or 20 scripts in the last three weeks and only one was any good.”

Helen Walker, in one of her more impolitic public comments to a reporter in the 1940s.

After almost three years in Hollywood, Helen Walker‘s life and career came to a turning point by the mid-1940s. As seen in the first part of this two part blog on the actress, found here, Walker had proven that she could hold her own in fast comedic company with popular successes such as Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Murder, He Says (1945).  She had also shown an untapped capacity for drama evidenced by her effectiveness in The Man on Half Moon Street (1943). Critics had begun to describe her as a “charmingly different personality,” noting her poise and ability to uncover a laugh or a character nuance–sometimes despite the quality of the rest of the production. Still, Paramount persisted in using their contractee’s services in several B movies destined for Broadway grind houses and a dismal spot on the lower halves of double bills. Walker refused to appear in one more ill-conceived comedy, (1945′s all-star melange, Duffy’s Tavern (1945), based on a popular radio show), followed by another, Follow That Woman (1945). She also made the tactical error of bluntly pointing out to a Los Angeles Times reporter that she felt “stymied…while waiting confidently for ‘grown-up’ parts.”

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