Clark Gable Slept Here

blogcadizClark Gable was born on this day 115 years ago in the tiny town of Cadiz, Ohio. Like all movie lovers, I appreciate the King of Hollywood as a signifier of the glamour and charm of the Golden Age. However, Gable is also a fellow Ohioan, so a couple of years ago, I visited his childhood home on Charleston Street in Cadiz, because that’s what Ohioans do—they drop in on each other and visit for a spell.

Gable’s birth home, or at least a replica of it, is located on a quiet residential street in the heart of Cadiz. The original house had been torn down in the 1960s. Twenty years later, when the local economy tanked because the area’s coal-mining companies were floundering, the Clark Gable Foundation was formed in the hopes of bringing in tourist dollars to Cadiz. The Foundation raised money to erect a marker on the property where the house once stood. A few years later, the Foundation pulled together enough money to rebuild the two-story wood-frame home.

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This Is Elvis: Commemorating the King

blogopenerTo celebrate Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday, TCM will show four feature films and two documentaries this Friday, January 8. I have a soft spot for the last film scheduled, This Is Elvis, because it was the movie that motivated me to write my dissertation on Presley, which provided the core material for several books.

Produced, directed, and written by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, This Is Elvis combines television appearances, news footage, voice-over narration, and re-created scenes with actors to interpret Presley’s life and career. In other words, don’t expect an expository documentary like you might find on the Biography Channel. Instead, the heavy use of re-created scenes, simulated newsreels, and feigned interviews make this an example of a performative documentary, in which the filmmakers stage scenes and direct performances to mimic drama or to depict a specific outcome.

The film is structured in flashback, which adds drama and interest to the material. It opens with the shocking news of Elvis’s death and then cuts back to his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Altogether, four separate actors portray Presley at various points in his life, including Paul Boensh III who plays ten-year-old Elvis. In the childhood scenes, Elvis is depicted learning the guitar from an old blues singer, played by real-life bluesman Furry Lewis. David Scott stars as the teenage Elvis, who performs in front of his high-school class for a talent show. Dana Mackay portrays Elvis during the sequence in which his mother becomes ill and then dies, which occurred when the singer was in the army. The most authentic portrayal is given by Johnny Harra, a real-life tribute artist who plays Presley during his Vegas years.

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Happy Holidays from the Stars

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When the King Met the Voice

blogopener1As part of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration, TCM has included several television specials in their Wednesday Sinatra-centric programming. This Wednesday, December 16, the 1973 special Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back airs at 8:00pm EST.

However, one TV special that was not included in the December programming is The Frank Sinatra Timex Special, which was broadcast in 1960. I like this special, not because it is particularly good, but because of the history behind it. It represents a key moment in the career of Elvis Presley as well as one of the few times that Sinatra back-pedaled a bit.

The Frank Sinatra Timex Special was part of a plan to re-tool Presley’s star image. Elvis’s tour of duty in the army from 1958 to 1960 had provided the perfect opportunity to break away from the Elvis the Pelvis image that had created controversy during the 1950s. His legendary manager, the notorious Colonel Tom Parker took a potentially disastrous situation for any performer’s career–being away from the public for two years–and turned it around to the singer’s advantage by releasing positive publicity about Elvis’s  service to his country. After his discharge, Presley’s management team, which included Parker, film producer Hal Wallis, and William Morris agent Abe Lastfogel, planned to steer his career toward an image and musical style that would attract a more mainstream audience.

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One for Sinatra

blogalbumalbum6When I was very young, I made a mental list of adventures I wanted to experience in my life—a kind-of bucket list before the phrase was coined. One of those experiences was to hear Frank Sinatra sing in concert, preferably in Vegas or some Hollywood night club that existed only in my imagination. While friends dreamed of seeing the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, various Motown groups, or even the Monkees, I wanted to see the Voice. Unfortunately, I never got to hear Sinatra sing live.

This month, TCM celebrates Sinatra’s 100th birthday by devoting Wednesday evenings to his music and movies. In addition to 35 films, the line-up includes five television specials. While I never got to hear Sinatra in person, I have seen most of his movies and all of his TV specials, including one not shown as part of the TCM celebration—The Frank Sinatra Timex Special in which the Rat Pack welcomed Elvis Presley home from the army.

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Happy Birthday, Burt Lancaster

burtatlanticcity1No Golden Age movie star projected vitality, vigor, and a lust for life more heartily than Burt Lancaster, born on this date in 1913. With his dazzling smile and handsome Irish looks, he was destined to be a movie star. The mere mention of his name conjures up his most iconic roles, such as the title characters in Elmer Gantry or The Birdman of Alcatraz. Movie lovers know that he began his career in film noir, playing the Swede in The Killers and Joe Collins in Brute Force. Reviewers took notice of the devilishly good-looking actor, referring to him as a “brawny Apollo.” Though he tried to play against this image by starring as the acid-tongued gossip columnist in Sweet Smell of Success or as a working-class brute in The Rose Tattoo, it was an image difficult for fans to forget. Lancaster can be seen this month on TCM in The Professionals (November 29, 8:00pm) and in Three Girls and a Sailor, in which he appears in a cameo as himself (November 19, 6:15pm).

In the 1980s and 1990s, his career took an interesting turn. He appeared in the films of young directors who cast the aging actor because of his status as a fabled movie star. In Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams, Lancaster costarred as Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a baseball player who played only one game during his pro career before retiring to become a doctor. As an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lancaster was much like his character, who represented the glory days of baseball. In Daniel Petrie’s Rocket Gibraltar, Lancaster starred as the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional family who demands a Viking funeral. Who would be more deserving of a mythic funeral than a movie star from Hollywood’s most mythic era?

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Fatty Arbuckle: The Life of the Party

blogopenerNext Sunday, October 18, at 2:30am, TCM airs The Life of the Party starring Fatty Arbuckle. It was released in November 1920, ten months before the fateful party that ruined the comedian’s life and career. Life of the Party, indeed.

On September 5, 1921, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was arrested for manslaughter in the death of starlet Virginia Rappe, one of the attendees at his infamous Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Prohibition had been in effect for over a year and a half, but the main reason for the party was to consume alcohol. The party began on Saturday, and drunken participants drifted in and out of Arbuckle’s hotel rooms all weekend. On Labor Day, Rappe dropped by with two other guests. In the afternoon, she was found semi-conscious in one of Arbuckle’s rooms. She was carried to another room in the hotel, and later that week, she was taken to a hospital, where she died of peritonitis due to a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter based on the dubious, ever-changing testimony of a key witness. After three trials, he was eventually acquitted, but the relentless sensationalized press coverage had exposed and exaggerated a party lifestyle of drinking and carousing. Huge headlines, such as “Arbuckle the Beast,” had left their mark. Despite the declaration of innocence by a jury, the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays, banned Roscoe Arbuckle from starring in future films and ordered distributors to cancel any of his movies still playing in theaters.

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James Dean on the Small Screen

blogthiefLong ago, in a former life, I edited a coffee-table book on James Dean called James Dean: Tribute to a Rebel. My favorite part of Dean’s life story was the time he spent in New York during the early days of live television. I thoroughly enjoyed fact-checking and researching his television career, which was not only more extensive than his movie appearances but far more diverse. This Friday, September 25, TCM offers a rare look at some of Dean’s live TV performances.

New York City was the hub of the television industry when Dean moved there to study at the Actors Studio in the fall of 1951. Prime-time programming consisted of weekly anthology dramas, meaning each installment was a new story with a different cast. Anthology series provided substantial work to young writers and a new generation of serious young actors whose careers were jump-started by live TV, including Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman, Martin Landau, Steve McQueen, Eva Marie Saint, and James Dean. The writers socialized together, compared notes, and created a community among themselves, while the actors represented a kind of repertory of talent for television producers and their casting agents.

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What I Learned from Summer Under the Stars

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Summer Under the Stars concludes today with the entire day devoted to the films of Shelley Winters. I thought I would look back on this month’s programming and ruminate on what I have learned as well as to make note of my favorite films. I invite readers to comment on their favorite moments from Summer Under the Stars and note any disappointments. Perhaps, TCM will take the feedback into consideration when programming next year’s August schedule. I am curious about which stars, films, and details appealed to regular TCM viewers, and if there are suggestions for the future; I am always impressed with the knowledge and perspectives of the TCM readers.

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Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and . . . Dali ?

blogopenerThis Friday, August 14, TCM salutes Groucho Marx as part of this month’s Summer Under the Stars. Most of the day is devoted to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers, which regular TCM viewers have seen multiple times. One of the most rewarding experiences for any avid movie lover is to watch a familiar film with a new perspective, leading the viewer to discover new insights and therefore a new appreciation. I hope my post today offers some of you a different perspective on the Marx Brothers’ movies.

Studying and teaching art history has prompted me to look at the movies in new ways. For example, when first studying the Dadaists in graduate school, I thought immediately of the Marx Brothers, because Dadaism was intentionally subversive and anarchic. It was born out of the anger and frustration over WWI and its causes, and it was designed to ridicule artistic traditions, moral conventions, and social institutions. In cafes and theaters, Dadaists dressed in ridiculous costumes, uttered meaningless noises, or performed poetry based on puns, nonsequiturs, and the interplay of words. Visual artists created collages and sculptures that reflected Freud’s and Jung’s ideas on the subconscious. After the war, the Surrealists picked up where the Dadaists left off, though their perspective was less nihilistic and they were more interested in tapping into the subconscious for their imagery. Surrealism is really about the irrational juxtaposition of recognizable images. Normal, everyday objects lose their identity or meaning because they have been taken out familiar contexts, or because they are depicted as warped or decayed. The imagery can be disturbing, provocative, and/or humorous. The artist whose work came to define Surrealism, at least for the mainstream public, was Salvador Dali, and Dali may have been the Marx Brothers’ biggest fan.

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