On Film Noir, Poetic Realism and “The Myth of Gabin”

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If you are a fan of film noir, and who isn’t, I suggest checking out the French film movement from the 1930s known as Poetic Realism. Noir fanatics are attracted to the genre’s dark romanticism with its haunting fatalism, melancholy mood and doomed characters—conventions shared with Poetic Realism. Until the end of February, FilmStruck is streaming seven films under the theme French Poetic Realism, including three featuring Jean Gabin. Gabin has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, not because they resemble each other, or employ similar acting styles, but because both became icons of the silver screen. In France, Gabin in his working-class cloth cap is an icon representing Poetic Realism, while Bogart in his fedora and trench coat is the face of film noir.

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On the Passing of Stars

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Movie lovers of all generations are still reeling from the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within a day of each other. Photos, memes and personal testimonies flooded the Internet as an expression of collective shock and grief.

Fisher’s character in Star Wars (1977) and Reynolds’s participation in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) dominated the references to their careers, not surprising since Princess Leia and an energetic Reynolds hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are iconic in popular culture. Coincidentally, both Fisher and Reynolds were 19 when hired to appear in their most famous roles. Common cultural consensus has deemed those roles significant in retrospect, but in the context of their lives, their most interesting work lay ahead of them.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

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I once took a couple of noncredit courses on the early films of John Ford. I thought I knew a great deal about Ford, but, as taught by talented filmmaker and learned film scholar Michael G. Smith, the courses proved to be a revelation. I was surprised at some of Ford’s influences (German Expressionism!!!!), and I enjoyed the diversity of genres and stars that made up his pre-Stagecoach output. I was reminded of this experience when I came across “John Ford in the 1930s,” a collection of films currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Included in this collection is The Whole Town’s Talking, a 1935 comedy that doesn’t have much of a reputation among Ford biographers. I admit that the first time I saw it, I didn’t realize that it was the work of Hollywood’s premiere director of westerns. In this little comedy, Edward G. Robinson stars in a dual role as mild-mannered hardware clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and cold-blooded gangster Killer Mannion, who has just broken out of jail. The police arrest Jones, believing him to be Mannion. After they release him, reporters create front-page headlines out of this unfortunate case of mistaken identity, which draws the attention of the real Mannion. The gangster kidnaps his look-alike to use his identification papers in order to continue his crime spree.

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They Don’t Make Stars Like. . . Well, You Know the Rest

THE LOVE GODDESSES, from left: Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, 1965

Recently, I re-visited the extraordinary stars of the past by viewing The Love Goddesses (1965), a documentary streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. Directed by Saul J. Turell, this little-known documentary traces the popularity of female stars as a barometer of America’s attitude toward sex and romance throughout the decades. Though I found the connections between the stars and America’s sexual mores too reductive, the clips of the famous, the not-so famous and the infamous were irresistible.

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An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

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With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

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Yves Montand: My First International Star

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We all have performers or movies that grant us entry into genres, eras, or styles. Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who got me hooked into classic cinema. Boris Karloff hooked me into horror. And Yves Montand was the first international star I ever really knew. Like many stars appealing to a new generation, it was his later work that I saw first and precisely what interested me in seeing his earlier work. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first but as he began appearing in more and more of the movies I was watching on Saturday afternoons in my childhood, I began to wonder where this fine actor got his start. For Montand, it started with singing and live performing until he was discovered by Edith Piaf. For me, it started with Z (1969).

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Robert Mitchum as The Face of Film Noir

blogeddie5A tough week for America. After a long, bitter election year, the end game is a divided and angry country. Disillusioned with both sides, I find escape—and solace—in a pair of moody film noirs in which a cynical, jaded Robert Mitchum encapsulates how I feel.

In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gunrunner who is barely making ends meet on the margins of the underworld. The last of his luck runs out when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.

TV writer Paul Monash adapted the screenplay from a novel by George V. Higgins, a real-life assistant DA. Higgins captured a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of street criminals. The corrupt, dog-eat-dog world of the novel easily translated to film noir. Gloomy, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum could so easily express in his baritone voice, somnolent expression and minimalist acting style.

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MOLLY HASKELL ON THE IMAGE OF WOMEN IN THE MOVIES

blogopener copyThis month, TCM spotlights “Trailblazing Women–Actresses Who Made a Difference,” a series of movies featuring female stars who contributed to the industry, culture, and society. The series covers all eras of movie history, from Mary Pickford, who was an industry powerhouse in the silent days, to Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson, who were activists off the screen in 1970s and 1980s. The program is the second part of a three-year effort in partnership with Women in Film (WIF) in which TCM devotes October to championing the achievements of women in Hollywood

TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society.

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Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

blog42ndMy favorite days of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars are those devoted to character actors, neglected stars, or actors whose careers were limited to one genre—sort of, the forgotten and forsaken of film history. It’s not that these actors were not famous, established, or major stars in their day, but to today’s audiences, they lack the iconic recognition of Golden Age favorites like Bogart, Tracy, Ball, or Davis. If it weren’t for TCM, the forgotten and forsaken would be lost to time.

Case in point: Ask most people to name a Ruby Keeler film, and the response would be, “Who?” Even movie lovers know her only from a handful of Warner Bros. musicals, specifically 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. I confess I knew very little about her: I have seen her Depression-era musicals, I remembered that she was married to Al Jolson, and I recalled that she had an amazing comeback in the early 1970s when she starred on Broadway in No, No Nanette.

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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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