Christmas on Celluloid: “Susan Slept Here”

susanopenerLast week, I wrote about Christmas in Connecticut with its charming romance, role-reversal comedy, and Currier and Ives backdrop. The film is the very essence of a holiday classic for the whole family: It features warm sentiment, Christmas carols around a tree, and sleigh rides in the snow. This week, I couldn’t resist writing about Susan Slept Here, which is a Christmas comedy with a May-December romance set against the cynical backdrop of the Hollywood industry. Last year, I devoted a paragraph to Susan Slept Here in a list of unconventional Christmas movies, and I hesitated to write about it again. But, TCM is airing the film in the wee hours of December 11 so interested viewers will have an opportunity to catch it. Set those DVRs for 5:00am this Thursday, because this oddity may not be a Christmas classic, but it is the kind of movie that is a lot of fun for cinephiles.

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Valentino’s Starmaking Role in ‘The Sheik’

sheikcigaretteAs 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.

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Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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In the Aftermath of Errol Flynn

flynnklineRecently, 57-year-old actor Stephen Bauer was photographed with his new girlfriend, 18-year-old aspiring journalist Lyda Loudon. The paparazzi pounced on the couple as they emerged from a restaurant. Afterward, the media mentioned their age difference in every paragraph of the stories about their May-December romance as a way to hint that their relationship must be aberrant or deviant. I briefly thought of Bauer and Loudon as I watched The Last of Robin Hood, an indie film about Errol Flynn’s end-of-life romance with teenager Beverly Aadland. Apparently, the press treated Aadland with the same combination of sensationalism and disdain.

Kevin Kline, who looks and sounds like Flynn, offers a believable interpretation of the debauched movie star. Flynn was only 50 when he died, but after a lifetime of “living every day like it was my last” (as he says in the movie), he looked decades older. The film begins when Flynn meets 15-year-old Beverly on the Warner Bros. lot, where she is in the chorus of the Gene Kelly film Marjorie Morningstar. Flynn sends costume designer Orry-Kelly to bring her to his office/dressing room, where he proceeds to offer her an audition for a non-existent part. He seduces the teenager, robbing her of her virginity. Flynn continues to pursue young Beverly, who looks and acts older than an adolescent, and the two become seriously involved. After he learns Beverly’s actual age, he beguiles her mother into accompanying them when they are out on the town in order to create the illusion that he is actually fostering Aadland’s career.

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SARANDON AS FLORENCE AADLAND

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September 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean and Clara, Bombshell and It

Coming up on Friday on TCM is a delightful pre-Code screwball comedy called Bombshell. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it this time around since it is at once a zippy, aggressively paced comedy with one of early film’s most glamorous comediennes, while also being a sharp-edged and angry satire about Hollywood power dynamics and women’s sexuality. It is also an M.C. Escher-like knot of in-jokes and life-imitating-art-imitating life self-referential whorls. It is a bubbly, bitter comedy emerging from the intersection of two great comediennes, whose earthy sexuality was both their ticket to stardom and their downfall; two women whose careers were tragically destroyed before they reached the age of 30 but who managed in that short window of time to permanently etch their names and memories into pop culture posterity. You’ll be hard-pressed to identify 90 minutes of celluloid that accomplishes more than this.

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KEYWORDS: Bombshell (1933), CLara Bow, It, Jean Harlow
COMMENTS: 6
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Battle of the Powells: William vs. Dick

dickToday, TCM pays tribute to Dick Powell, airing 14 of his films as part of Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this month, a day had been devoted to William Powell. As a major fan of both stars, I can’t decide if I was more excited to listen to Dick Powell croon and crack wise, or watch William Powell woo his costars with wit and style.

Like several male stars from the Golden Age, neither Powell was classically handsome. Yet, both are attractive and appealing because of their cultivated charisma and star images. WP was the elegant gentleman who exuded romance and class, while his keen sense of humor prevented his characters from becoming too high brow or pompous. Though he played oily cads very early in his career, his star image as the suave gent was cemented by the 1930s and remained remarkably consistent until his last movie, Mr. Roberts, in 1955. I admire those Golden Age movie stars who were able to maneuver their images through the changes in the industry and the ravages of aging. But, then again, who doesn’t respect Dick Powell for completely changing his star image from the sweet-faced crooner of backstage musicals to the wise-cracking, hard-boiled anti-hero of film noir.

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Is This Really the Same Actor?

actordouglasWhile researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. [...MORE]

Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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Pirates 101: Intro to Hollywood Buccaneers, Privateers, and Swashbucklers

pirateblackswanAvast, ye buckos and scallywags! Prepare to pillage and plunder with pirates and privateers as TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight offers 21 pirate pictures during the month of June.  One summer long ago, I read Treasure Island and saw The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner in the same month, which left me with a life-long obsession with pirates, exotic tropical locales, and buried treasure. As fate would have it, I suffer horribly from seasickness, which makes me a landlubber and prevents me from joining one of those crews that search for buried treasure and sunken pirate ships around Key West. Instead, I content myself with watching celluloid pirates and ruminating over the reasons for their periodic popularity in popular culture.

I have collected articles and notes on pirate stories and movies with a vague notion of writing a book or teaching the pirate subgenre in class. TCM’s “Pirate Pictures” fest on Friday nights has given me an opportunity to try out my ideas on TCM viewers and blog readers in a three-part series that I am christening Pirates 101. I promise to keep the pirate lingo to a minimum, though that will be a challenge for me.

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“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’

MFYbenjyTonight and tomorrow evening, TCM presents six movies produced through Brooksfilms, the production company headed by Mel Brooks. In addition to Brooks’s comedies, the company has been responsible for a variety of movies not associated with the comic mind that spawned Blazing Saddles, including my favorite David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, and a gothic horror flick called The Doctor and the Devils.

Tomorrow night, TCM airs the Brooksfilms production My Favorite Year, which happens to be my favorite Peter O’Toole movie, though fans of his more lauded signature roles might disagree. Set during the Golden Age of Television, when prime-time programming was produced live in New York, the story unfolds from the perspective of Benjy Stone, a junior writer on the comedy series The King Kaiser Show. O’Toole plays Hollywood movie star Alan Swann, who is guest-starring on the show because he needs the money. Benjy is assigned to watch Swann throughout the week of preparation and rehearsal, because the star lives as large as his image, chasing women and drinking at every opportunity. As a result of their week together, Benjy, who is both disillusioned and awestruck by Swann, grows from a wise-cracking kid into a mature young man.

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