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?


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.


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.


What I Learned from Summer Under the Stars


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.


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.


Adolphe Menjou: From Valentino to Kubrick

Adolphe Menjou Holding Daschund Aboard ShipToday, the films of Adolphe Menjou are highlighted as part TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Classic movie lovers know Menjou as the dapper, erudite gent with the cane, hat, and waxed mustache. In comedies, melodramas, crime stories, and historical dramas, he was the older suitor, the authoritative boss, the cultured crook, the aristocrat. He was such a fixture in Golden Age movies that it is easy to assume he always played supporting characters. That’s the assumption an entertainment writer for the McClatchy-Tribune Information Services made just a few days ago in an online article promoting Summer Under the Stars. The writer questioned TCM’s decision to include Menjou, Mae Clarke, Virginia Bruce, and Monty Woolley, implying they were never really stars. She also hints that perhaps these performers are too obscure to be true stars. The writer, who will remain nameless, commits the fatal error that many web scribes make: She failed to adequately research her topic, assuming that if her generation has not heard of these actors, they must be obscure. She is wrong about Menjou. He was indeed a star before he evolved into a well-respected supporting player; as a matter of fact, he was a romantic lead for almost a decade.


An Evening in the Company of Legends


I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.


Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.




Tracy & Hepburn, Bogart & Bacall, Powell & Loy, and . . . . Sothern & Raymond?

blogwalkingI am enjoying the films associated with TCM’s Star of the Month for March, Ann Sothern. Every Wednesday night, TCM will air a number of Sothern movies, totaling 35 in all. Though primarily b-movies or series, these titles are delightful precisely because they are b-movies. Often, the b’s are completely dependent on the charms of the stars to overcome the simplistic storylines, mediocre songs, and limited sets. Sothern enlivened many a film because of her sassy persona and stylish look, particularly romantic comedies.

Among the films selected are five that Sothern made during the Depression with forgotten leading man Gene Raymond. In the 1930s, the use of romantic teams became a casting strategy for studios, a practice they continued throughout the Golden Age. A successful pairing generated twice the box office because fans of the individual actors as well as devotees of the romantic team came to see the films. Today’s classic-movie lovers are familiar with the most famous movie couples—Astaire and Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, Powell and Loy—while dozens of other romantic teams have long since been forgotten.


A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.


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