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.
Posted by Moira Finnie on June 2, 2010
“Forgive me for being profound, but it’s good to be alive,” mumbles Troy Donahue to his date, Suzanne Pleshette, as Italian singer Emilio Pericoli warbles the reverberating “Al-Di-La,” in Rome Adventure (1962-Delmer Daves). Well, forgive me for being a goof, but this girl’s fancy, (and questionable taste) finds such fare pretty irresistible as the days are getting longer and Spring melts into Summer. Besides, this movie, filmed in Roma, Firenze, and Lago Maggiore is a cheap, vicarious way of visiting Italy without having to stand in line at the airport or mispronouncing this beautiful language myself. The fact that it also features two actresses I’ve always loved–Suzanne Pleshette and Constance Ford–was icing on this Italian ciambella.
Posted by Moira Finnie on April 28, 2010
This is an MGM Movie?
In the rousing opening scene of Ride, Vaquero! (1953), a half-drunken bandido leader called José Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), announces to his ragtag, brawling followers that the Civil War has ended. The Americans, he explains, will turn their violent attentions to the Indians and gangs like theirs, moving into their territory along the Rio Grande border. To counter this threat, José Esqueda (Quinn), self-described as “the strongest and most cunning of them all,” promises that they will now burn all the newcomers’ ranchos as soon as they build them.This bit of desperado theater may seem to be performed for the animalistic men and women who populate the squalid lair of Esqueda, but it is soon clear that his real capering is reserved for an audience of one–his intense, soft-spoken right hand man Rio (Robert Taylor), who privately questions the logic of this promised action while he carefully cleans his gun. Their relationship is a study in contrasts. Esqueda is the personification of every human appetite on two legs, filthy, effusively violent, shooting a man who dares to drink from his bottle. He’s also illogically generous, sending Rio to town to give a priest some of his booty for orphans. Esqueda even indulges in a bit of wood carving sculpture in his off-hours. However, when faced with Rio, Esqueda is confronting his beloved opposite, a man he calls brother, though they are not related in a traditional sense. Rio, encased in a black moodiness as dark as his clothing, has a self-possessed, lethally quiet manner and an unsettling detachment from life that frustrates Esqueda. Alternately threatening Rio and cajoling him, the garrulous Esqueda thinks that the other man relies on his fondness for him to keep him from killing him.
Giving his companion a cold, knowing glare after he is threatened, Rio asks “Why do you talk to me this way? You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”
Posted by Moira Finnie on April 7, 2010
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…
Posted by Moira Finnie on March 3, 2010
Ernest Hemingway may have loathed most of the translations of his own stories to film, and sometimes with good reason. Happy endings were tacked on to many of his stories. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) a conflicted hero lived, despite a touch of systemic septicemia, a gangrenous leg, and a heckuva death wish. (The author fumed and called it ‘The Snows of Zanuck’ in private). Political realities were sometimes lost. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) does not seem to have a commie in sight and only one mention of a fascist is made, at least by name. Evocative situations were embellished. The Killers (1946) left Hemingway’s terse masterpiece behind after the first superb fifteen minutes, but the author expressed some liking for that one despite this amplification, (his acceptance of the film may have been partly due to the presence of Ava Gardner and the likability of the producer, Mark Hellinger). “A fat actor”–in Hemingway’s words–played one of his best characters when an aging Spencer Tracy took the lead in The Old Man and the Sea (1958) a novella that led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the writer in 1954. Other, lesser known adaptations of Hemingway stories fared a bit better, with glimmers of the writer’s elusive style in A Farewell to Arms (1932), and The Breaking Point (1950).
Of course, Ernie wasn’t allergic to the money the studios tossed in his lap for these tales, though he was miffed when he learned what some of them eventually earned after he sold the rights to the books to filmmakers. He reportedly didn’t speak to Howard Hawks for six months after he challenged the director to make a movie from what Hawks called “his worst book”; only to have To Have and To Have Not become a giant hit, even though the story had little to do with the original novel. Nor did he disdain the company of the beautiful and the gifted people who sometimes took roles in these movies. Who can blame him for feeling the pull of the glamorous company of his hunting buddy Gary Cooper, beautiful Ava Gardner or the glorious Ingrid Bergman, among others?
Posted by Moira Finnie on November 18, 2009
I suppose to the eyes of the world, we were a motley looking crew as the capacity crowd flowed eagerly into George Eastman House‘s Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York last month. Unlike the first Hollywood premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1923) at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922, there were no limos, no gowns, no red carpets, no klieg lights searching the sky, and certainly no hint of a “Day of the Locust” style mob scene. However, there were about five hundred not very glam but expectantly eager people gathered on an October evening for the “World Premiere” of this restored version of the tale in the 21st century starring Douglas Fairbanks in one of his classic roles.
So, who were these people who came out to see this 87 year old film version of the English bandit’s adventures? Among the crowd at this movie were a few who might have been just old enough to have seen a later Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. film in a movie theater, a generous sprinkling of younger cinephiles, middle aged academics, and a delightful gaggle of children of about nine years of age in the audience that Saturday. Once thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, this film’s “premiere” was a highlight of the seventh biennial conference of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies at the University of Rochester, where the historical and literary permutations of the appealing errant figure of lore were analyzed and, frankly, reveled in by the participants. Accredited scholars and hard core Robin buffs from around the world spent three days discussing the evergreen legend of this “Robin Hood: Media Creature”, trying to discern if the 700 year old hero of Sherwood Forest even existed, while enjoying an extravaganza of multi-media exhibits (including Douglas Fairbanks boots, seen below), early manuscripts, songs, and presentations discussing all aspects of the tale.
Posted by Moira Finnie on September 23, 2009
“This gift, which I never asked for and don’t understand, has brought me only unhappiness!” ~ Edward G. Robinson as a fake mentalist who is cursed with the power of second sight in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)
Have you ever wished you could see into the future? A kind of cautionary tale about the unpredictable nature of such a dubious gift is told in this movie. It begins at night, naturally.
The first striking image seen, amid a swirl of steam, reveals an enormous locomotive, bearing down on the camera like blind, arbitrary fate itself. As the veil of billowing smoke fades, the next sight shows a young man (John Lund) stumbling across a rail yard, picking up a trail of dropped objects, beginning with a glove, and leading to a compact, purse and watch, which he checks to see if it is still keeping time.
Frantically, he spots a young woman (Gail Russell) on a catwalk above the tracks, just as another train is entering the yard. Just in time, he pulls her back. Murmuring “Why did you stop me?”, she is led away by the man while she tells him “that the stars…they keep watching, like a thousand eyes…” Stopping at a cafe, the pair are met by a strange man, who, the young man has explained, told him where to find the suicidal young woman–a bit of information that he had no way of knowing other than psychically. There follows a flashback of some considerable length, even for a film noir, in which it is revealed that Russell is the daughter of Robinson’s former fellow vaudevillians, played by Jerome Cowan and Virginia Bruce.
“Knowledge itself is power” observed the Elizabethan Sir Francis Bacon, but he never met the 20th century author and father of noir fiction, Cornell Woolrich. In the reclusive Woolrich‘s fascinating if romantically bleak view of life, consciousness and the irony-laden knowledge of the past, present and future made his characters painfully aware of a lonely existence and its likely end. This author refashioned themes around this central problem with an obsessive, luridly poetic skill, and never more so than in his ambitious novel, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, published under the name of “George Hopley” in 1945. The film of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) would explore these themes centering around the life of a fake mentalist who is chagrined to discover he really does have second sight, allowing him to see the future, even when it affects those loves. The adaptation of Woolrich‘s longest novel into an 80 minute “B” movie at Paramount by director John Farrow, (who has been discussed at some length here in a previous blog about Alias, Nick Beal), and his collaborators, writer Barré Lyndon and frequent scenarist Jonathan Latimer, apparently required changing many of the characters and the circumstances of the story. Despite this streamlining, much of the book’s mood of fatalistic suspense remains . Woolrich‘s prodigious output of dark tales had often led Hollywood to his stories of characters who are searching for solutions to their existential dilemmas. In the process, they often learn more than they wanted to know about life’s quixotic and cruel twists as well as their own character.
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