Posted by Susan Doll on July 20, 2015
A Lady Without Passport, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of the Summer of Darkness series, takes place in Havana during the postwar era. Hedy Lamarr stars as a Viennese woman adrift in Cuba after WWII, hoping to immigrate to the United States. Believe it or not, the original idea for the film was to make a documentary about “a poor immigrant in Cuba struggling to come into this country,” according to biographer Ruth Barton in Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. As MGM grappled with the politics of legal and illegal immigration, it was decided that a crime drama centering on a Cuban woman’s desperate efforts to immigrate was safer. Safer yet was to make the hopeful immigrant a European victim of WWII.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 10, 2014
As part of TCM’s series Silent Stars, Rudolph Valentino sets the small screen on fire tonight with his star-making performance in The Sheik (1921). Though Valentino had created a stir when he danced the Argentine tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was The Sheik that propelled him to superstardom. Over the next five years, Valentino would magnify his celebrity by taking on roles that exploited his sensual, exotic Latin Lover image and by exposing his colorful romantic life to the fanzines.
Valentino’s screen persona would be out of place in today’s Hollywood, where interchangeable young actors show off their buff bodies and blond highlights while tossing out snarky one-liners. Valentino’s slightly feminine face and smooth body are unusual physical traits for a leading man, while his nostril-flaring, eye-bulging acting are unfashionably melodramatic. Yet, despite his dated persona and acting style, there is much to appreciate in Valentino’s films. They are imaginative, highly romantic fantasies that evoke colorful, exotic places or eras that never really existed. And, Valentino was undeniably charismatic and energetic—a perfect combination for the silent screen. A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch Valentino on the big screen in The Eagle, the story of Russian soldier Vladimir Dubrovsky. The film opens with Dubrovsky on horseback dressed in full Russian regalia while inspecting his troops. His queen, Catherine the Great, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her advances, resulting in his banishment from the castle. Details such as Catherine the Great, a castle, soldiers on horseback, and Valentino in a cape and uniform suggested to me—and the rest of the audience—that the story takes place in the distant past. Imagine our surprise when Valentino drives away from the castle in a fancy 1920s automobile. The audience burst out laughing at the incongruity, but this type of mismatching of exotic styles and historic eras is typical of Valentino’s films, where Romance with a capital R trumps accuracy.
To set the stage for Valentino’s signature, career-making role, I offer ten facts about The Sheik, which airs at 8:00pm tonight.
Posted by Susan Doll on July 28, 2014
Ahhh, New Orleans! Where else can outrageous people eat exotic food while downing powerful alcoholic drinks with catastrophic names. On a recent trip to NOLA, I was prepared for everything—the crowds of colorful revelers, the world’s most demented ghost stories, even the parents who dragged small children to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. But, what really surprised me—and, pleasantly so—was how much I learned about movie history during my brief vacation. Avid movie-goers know that a variety of contemporary films and television programs have been shot in New Orleans and Louisiana, including the third season of American Horror Story. But, Louisiana’s contributions to American film history go back to the earliest silent days.
Posted by Susan Doll on July 3, 2014
When I was a college student working the graveyard shift at a truck stop, a movie crew stopped by one morning to have breakfast. The crew was on their way to dress the set for Harvest Home, a TV mini-series starring Bette Davis. Being one of those flirtatious truck-stop girls, I was invited to come onto the set to watch the filming. I am sure the crew member thought it was his idea all along! It was exciting to watch as the town square in tiny Kingsville, Ohio, morphed into a thriving New England farming village. The experience gave me a life-long fascination with visiting movie locations, a pastime that I parlayed into a book a few years ago titled Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema.
As part of their agenda to entertain and educate the public about classic cinema, Turner Classic Movies has put their own spin on movie tourism by offering the TCM Movie Location Tour in Los Angeles and the TCM Classic Film Tour in New York City. While no one at Turner has asked my opinion on these matters, I whole-heartedly suggest Chicago for their next movie-location tour. From the pioneering efforts of Colonel William Selig to the slapstick antics of Charlie Chaplin to the overblown atrocities of Michael Bay, Chicago has been an active center for movie-making. Few people realize Chicago’s importance, because writers and documentarians too ingrained in the canon of film history regularly leave out the city’s contributions. (Film historians Michael Smith and Adam Selzer hope to compensate for this oversight with their upcoming book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, soon to be published by Wallflower Press).
Key Largo (tonight on TCM) is one of those venerable mainstays of TCM and likely something everyone here has already nearly memorized. I remember once I made a point of watching it in Key Largo, while on vacation (much like how I watch movies like Airport 77 while flying). I mentioned this to the proprietors of the bed and breakfast where we were staying, and they told me that the island of Key Largo was actually named in honor of the movie.
It took me a long time to wrap my head around that statement. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Click the fold below to read the whole story, about the citizens of a gorgeous island paradise insisted on naming their community after a grim thriller about murderous thugs and a hostage crisis. Like you do.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on February 23, 2014
“I thought you might want to go to the picture show. Miss Mosey is having to close it. Tonight’s the last night.” – Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)
How is it that nobody has done a modern version of The Last Picture Show? I realize that Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, is about much more than Miss Mosey having to close down the movie theater due to dwindling business and the rise of television, but let’s face it: the death of the Royal Theater in a small town, circa 1952, serves as a larger emblem of the many chapters in life that open and close for the characters of Anarene, Texas. It does so in ways that are understandable for anyone going through adolescence, their mid-life, and even death. Still: so much is implied by the four simple words of the title that it’s no surprise the book caught the eye of someone like Bogdanovich.
Posted by Susan Doll on December 2, 2013
This past August, two new biographies about the silent era’s most glamorous star were published, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up by Trish Welsch and Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer and Jeanine Basinger. Both are profiled on the Books page of the TCM website. I breezed through both of them, looking for info on my favorite Swanson flick, Stage Struck.
If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Stage Struck doesn’t have the reputation of those romantic melodramas that Swanson made for Cecil B. De Mille—Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, etc. Also, the film has never been released for home viewing, not even in the good ole bad VHS days. Years ago, I checked out a poor VHS copy from the public library in New Martinsville, West Virginia. The librarian recommended it because Stage Struck had been shot in New Martinsville in 1925. Local resident R. Bryan Wilson had tracked down a 16mm print and paid for a videotape copy for the library so that residents would have an opportunity to see it.
Posted by Susan Doll on April 29, 2013
Last week, actor Dylan McDermott dropped by Ringling College to mingle with students and to speak to an audience of students, staff, and local residents. The latter event was the last in Ringling’s Digital Filmmaking Lab Series, which is designed to give the filmmaking students exposure to real-world industry personnel. The event consisted of a clip reel and a live interview with McDermott by a local journalist, who then fielded questions and comments from the audience. Articulate and charismatic, he graciously addressed questions that I am sure he has answered many times in the past.
However, one anecdote by McDermott really took the audience by surprise. When talking about his latest film, Olympus Has Fallen, an action film in which terrorists infiltrate the White House, the actor noted that principle photography was done entirely in Shreveport, Louisiana. Though the bulk of the film takes place in the White House, as a secret service agent tries to rescue the President, McDermott said that he never set one foot in Washington, D.C. during production. The studio recreated the White House in Shreveport. Apparently, Louisiana residents got a kick out of driving down the road in Shreveport and seeing the White House in plain view, or at least a part of it.
Posted by Susan Doll on October 22, 2012
What’s better than listening to a behind-the-scenes DVD commentary and discovering something new about a favorite film? It’s listening to a live commentary while watching the film on a big screen! Last week, I attended a “sound-down” of the sci-fi blockbuster Inception presented by cinematographer Wally Pfister. A sound-down is exactly what the term implies: The film is screened with the sound so low that it cannot be heard while a person of note—in this case, Pfister—provides an expert commentary. A sound-down offers an opportunity to fully understand the art behind the illusion that is Hollywood movie-making without destroying the magic.
A free event open to all film students and movie-lovers, the sound-down of Inception ended a week of workshops, master classes, and screenings at Ringling College of Art and Design in which Pfister generously gave his time and expertise to the students. Located in my new hometown of Sarasota, Florida, Ringling is the college where I now teach film and art history to a talented student body of future illustrators, fine artists, animators, and filmmakers. I was lucky to squeeze into a class in which Pfister provided an insider’s view of production design by explaining the interrelationship between the director, the production designer, and the cinematographer. Informal yet informative, Pfister painted a clear picture of the process of production, emphasizing that story needs to drive the choice of visual techniques—not the other way around.
Posted by Susan Doll on February 21, 2011
The independent film Winter’s Bone received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, which illustrates one reason why the Oscars matter. Oscar recognition ensures increased publicity and therefore a wider audience for this film in contrast to other well-done indies not lucky enough to catch the spotlight.
Set in southern Missouri, Winter’s Bone captures contemporary life in the Ozarks, where the remnants of a rural-based, traditional lifestyle clash against the vices of the modern world. Jennifer Lawrence earned her Best Actress nomination as 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who tends to her family, including a psychologically disturbed mother and two younger siblings. When their father is arrested for producing methamphetamine, he puts their house and land up for his bail bond and then disappears. Ree sets out to find him before the Dollys are kicked off the land that has been in their family for generations. Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone authentically depicts the dark side of the contemporary rural South without resorting to the ugly stereotyping that marks so many films set below the Mason-Dixon line.
Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough took great pains to ensure authenticity by shooting on location in southern Missouri, noting in the DVD commentary, “We toyed with the idea of filming in other states, but ultimately came to the conclusion that shooting in Missouri was crucial, more important even than the aspect of winter. . southern Missouri is a muse for the author, Daniel Woodrell, and there’s no way that this story could be detached from its home turf.” The commentary is filled with statements about the way the locale and landscape shaped the characters and material, with McDonough declaring, “The landscape is a character.” While location shooting is often crucial to the atmosphere, authenticity, and sense of character in films, the characters in Winter’s Bone are defined by it, their motivations drawn from it, and the drama shaped by it. The same could be said of the actual residents of southern Missouri who—despite poverty, hardships, and exploitation—still live in the rural hill country of their ancestors.
The use of locale and landscape in Winter’s Bone reminded me of a long-forgotten Civil War drama shot in Tyler and Doddridge Counties in West Virginia, where my extended family still live. No Drums, No Bugles starred a young Martin Sheen as Ashby Gatrell, a soldier who deserted both the Confederate and Union armies. He spent three years in the hills, living off the land and avoiding human contact less he be captured by either side. No Drums, No Bugles was directed as an independent production in 1972 by Clyde Ware, who hailed from West Union in Doddridge County. Ware, who was a respected director of tv westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, died last year. With his death, it is unlikely that No Drums, No Bugles will ever see a DVD release. I have an old VHS copy of the film that is so worn, the image drops out in several scenes. When I watched the film recently, I noticed that the content reflected the issues and politics of the Vietnam era, but the low-budget indie style—with its emphasis on authentic locations—seemed remarkably contemporary.
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