Nosferatu to you too, and the horse you rode in on

It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu.  I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema.  In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself.  To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog!  So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!



Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!


Mogul Mania

Tonight begins TCM’s original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series that will air every Monday till December 13, with each episode repeating on the following Wednesday. An ambitious, meticulously crafted interpretation of the history of American film, Moguls & Movie Stars focuses on the famous (movie stars) and the infamous (the moguls) as the threads that tie this history together.

While I have been anxiously awaiting the series since I first heard about it months ago, I feel especially eager because I have already seen the first two episodes, and I know the quality and level of detail to expect. At the Telluride Film Festival, director John Wilkman presented Episode 1: “The Peepshow Pioneers” and Episode 2: “The Birth of Hollywood.” Another reason I am excited about Moguls & Movie Stars is because I got to contribute in a small way to the terrific-looking website that supports the series. I wrote four of the site’s biographies of the legendary moguls: Sam Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky, and Irving Thalberg. I urge everyone to peruse the website for the wealth of historical information it provides. However, I can’t help but wonder if the other writers experienced the same difficulty that I did in paring down the anecdotes and stories about the moguls into just a few paragraphs. Some of the information and insight I uncovered but discounted will pop up in the program’s interviews with the moguls’ relatives and offspring, including Carla Laemmle, Daniel Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. But much information I came across will be left out. I thought it might be fun and enlightening to offer a few extra facts and details on these larger-than-life moguls who, for better or worse, shaped the Hollywood industry.


Polo, Anyone?

Quick! What could bring the talented, the powerful and the famous together in studio era Hollywood? Not a movie. Not a premiere. And not a high stakes poker game, though plenty of those went on regularly. What brought the likes of Jimmy Gleason, Walter Wanger, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Walt DisneyPaul Kelly, Frank Borzage, Johnny Mack Brown, Hal Roach, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, George O’Brien, Darryl F. Zanuck and even Joan Crawford together in the same places week after week when their work was done?


A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.


The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.

The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.


Death by Oscar

I make no apologies for my fascination with the annual Academy Awards show. I grew up in a household filled with movie lovers and watching the Oscars was a yearly ritual in my home. My mother enjoyed making popcorn for our impromptu Oscar parties and even though we rarely had the opportunity to see all the films that were nominated each year we’d still root for our favorite performers and filmmakers to take home a gold statuette. During the yearly broadcast my mother regularly reminded me that one of our favorite actors, Richard Burton, had never won an Oscar even though he had been nominated numerous times. Together we’d shake our heads in disbelief and complain loudly about that injustice, but we continued to watch year after year knowing full well that awards aren’t always given to those who deserve them. My mother passed away in 1997 but I’ve continued our family tradition without her. It might be undeserved devotion but the pomp and pageantry of the Academy Awards show appeals to the little kid in me. I know that most of my favorite performers and filmmakers will never take home a gold statuette but I enjoy the pure spectacle of the event. Sports fans have their Superbowl and movie lovers have the Academy Awards. Oscar night represents many different things to many different people but to me it will always be an opportunity for everyone to share their appreciation for the movies and the people who make them.

My fascination with the annual Academy Awards show led me to recently read Robert Hofler’s latest book Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr. If you’re familiar with Oscar history you might recognize Carr’s name as the man who was responsible for what is widely considered to be the worst Oscar show in the Academy’s long history. Allan Carr was a flamboyant and successful Hollywood talent agent in the ‘60s who helped manage the careers of many actors including Tony Curtis, Rosalind Russell, Peter Sellers, Ann-Margret and Dyan Cannon. The book focuses on Carr’s life during the ‘70s and ‘80s when he was producing films such as the popular musical GREASE (1978) and the box-office flop CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC (1980) as well as hosting legendary parties at his luxurious Hollywood home known as Hillhaven Lodge. In 1989 Allan Carr was asked to produce the 61st Annual Academy Awards show.


The Macomber Affair (1947), Ernie and the Movies

*Spoilers Abound Below*

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?


Hattie McDaniel’s Path to Her Oscar

Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her.  I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.


The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Meets the King of the Quickies

Elvis Presley would have been 75 years old on this Friday, January 8. During his lifetime, Elvis conquered many arenas of entertainment, from the recording industry to television to the movies; after his death, he became an icon of both the best and worst of 20th-century pop culture, from rock ‘n’ roll innovator to victim of show-biz excess.  Of the thousands of photos and clips of Elvis as the notorious 1950s rock ‘n’ roller, the clean-cut leading man, or the Vegas superstar, none show him past the age of 42—the age at which he died in 1977. As with Monroe, Garland, or Dean, it is downright eerie to contemplate Presley as a senior citizen; I prefer to remember all of these icons in their prime.


To celebrate Elvis’s 75th birthday, TCM has programmed an entire day of Presley movies, which encompass all phases of his career. Jailhouse Rock represents the notorious Elvis the Pelvis era, while Elvis on Tour and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles the King during the Vegas years. The rest of the films are those much-derided vehicles from the 1960s in which Presley most often played a handsome race-car driver, airplane pilot, or boat captain passing through some vacation spot or exotic locale. Elvis’s flicks have gotten a bum rap over the years, but I appreciate them as light and breezy representations of 1960s fads, crazes, and trends. For example, the colorful location work in Blue Hawaii, the prototypical Presley vehicle, shows off the beauty of America’s newly adopted 50th state, while Girl Happy celebrates the 1960s teen ritual of vacationing in Florida over Easter break.

Still, there is no denying that the Presley filmography includes several misfires and clunkers, and I couldn’t help but notice that two of his most scorned musicals, Harum Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins, are scheduled for the less-than-prime-time slots of 6:15am and 7:45am on January 8. These two movies share in common the same producer—Sam Katzman, who was dubbed the King of the Quickies because of the extremely short production schedules he preferred.  Actually, “King of the Quickies” was only one of many nicknames given to Katzman. He was also known as the Schlockmeister (because of the low-budget, low-brow nature of his movies), Jungle Sam (because he produced the Jungle Jim series as well as titles like Jungle Moon Men), and the Bossman (because no matter who directed or starred in his films, Katzman was definitely in charge financially and creatively).  Despite his reputation for producing schlock, I like and appreciate many of Katzman’s quickies for reasons only movie lovers can understand.


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