Unusual Commentary Tracks


Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

Aguirre: The Choice of Ebert

In a few hours we will screen a 35mm English print of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. I imported it from Europe with the help of Lucki Stipetić, the younger half-brother of Herzog (and head of Werner Herzog Filmproduktion), who emailed me a week ago to say: “The print we have is the only English print we have and we have to be very careful with it.” I first tried to get Aguirre from the newly reconstituted New Yorker Films, the original distributor of the film who, in a fitting tribute to Easter, rose back up from the dead this month. But they have a lot of sand stuck to their tunic and they’re waiting for the coffee to kick in, which put into question whether I’d be able to secure a print from them in time for today. I didn’t have the luxury of time as Roger Ebert is in town this week for The Conference on World Affairs – a yearly event founded in 1948 – and he’s selected Aguirre for a week-long dissection that begins tomorrow. So last week I contacted Herzog’s office in Germany where Lucki tried to sell me on screening Aguirre in a digital format. For me that was out of the question. Ebert’s week-long dissection goes on this Monday through Friday and allows anyone in the 2,000+ seat Macky Auditorium Concert Hall to raise their hand to pause the action with a question or comment, with Herzog there the first two days and Ebert there the whole week. These aptly titled Cinema Interruptus screenings are by necessity screened digitally. As far as I’m concerned it would be a sacrilege not to give people a chance to see Aguirre before that, uninterrupted, on the big screen, and with the full warmth and density that 35mm celluloid provides. The only time I could sneak in that screening was today: Easter Sunday. Which is just fine by me; the film theater is one of my preferred churches anyway.  [...MORE]

Knock on Wood

“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
-Joel McCrea

I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters.  Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.

Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week.  The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.


“And 5000 Others!”, including Maria Ouspenskaya

As TCM winds down a month featuring one of the greatest character actors who ever stole a picture, (Claude Rains, the September Star of the Month),  my appetite for  character actors in the spotlight has been whetted. Partly in response to repeated requests from those interested readers who frequent these pages, I thought a deserving glimpse of more supporting players might enliven the month of October. Each week this month, I’ll focus one of those actors who may not have been the stars of the show, but whose work invariably stood out from the crowd of “5000 others”. This week, I thought I’d tip my hat toward at least one of the gifted Russian émigrés who trained at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Maria Ouspenskaya, whose talent came out of that creative seedbed for some of the finest actors and boldest hams, stands out among them, despite being under five feet tall. Many of her colleagues lent their credibility and indelible gifts to Hollywood, but she may be the most readily identifiable of the bunch. While hightailing it away from the Cossacks, the Whites, the Reds, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, the anarchists and the fascists who made life a bit too “interesting” in the first half of the 20th century from Siberia to the shores of Ellis Island, several of these actors found a pretty fair living in Hollywood, among them Akim Tamiroff, Olga Baclanova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Leonid Kinskey and Konstantin Shayne. They may never have felt completely at home in what sometimes seemed the Babylonian splendor of “barbaric” American culture in the studio era. Cut off from their cultural roots and often having lost their families and nearly their lives during the revolutionary times they lived in, these actors often proved their strength of character and professional versatility when asked to play characters of almost every class and ethnicity in American movies.


Remembering Mr. Malden

Karl Malden in "One-Eyed Jacks"

I’m not going to try to repeat what’s already been written in past two days about the great Karl Malden, who died yesterday at the age of ninety-seven.  Compared to so many of his show business compadres, Mr. Malden had a tremendously and accomplished long life, filled with artistic triumphs, the respect of his peers, and the devotion of legions of fans.  Instead, we should just look at some of his roles, enjoy him doing what he does best.  Words can hardly compare to watching Malden onscreen, his un-movie star looks always inviting you in to what you know will be an extraordinarily good performance.  I would invite you to read Roger Ebert’s tribute to Malden which he published yesterday, however, and the Los Angeles Times had an excellent extensive obituary with lots of background info.   Let’s watch…


Insomniac Theatre: Open All Night

Awake all night? Try watching a movieMaybe it was the moon, or that 4th cup of tea I had that afternoon or just a touch of Spring fever. In any case, last week, the Sandman forgot my address. I was wide awake at 3a.m. Those burning coals that used to be my eyes just weren’t eager to dive into the text of any of the books next to the bed, it was too cold to be star-gazing, (I’m always hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis), and flipping on the tube, those infomercials about the joys of cryovacing food at home just aren’t something I’d like to watch at any time. Inevitably, a perusal of those late night movies seemed to be a pretty good way to entice Morpheus to drop in soon. Except for the movie I came across while channel surfing.


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