On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’

foxesposterTo cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.

During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.

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Zip a Dee Doo Dah

While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.

No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

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Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.

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How to offend everybody in one easy step

Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote.  I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response.  I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids.  So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.

This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy.  And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes.  If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive.  Proceed advisedly.

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Untrue West

One thing I love about blogging here is the sense of a real conversation developing with readers.  Several weeks ago, I wrote about Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie, UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE, and the comments to that post inspired me to explore the larger story of the transition from silent to sound—and that post’s comments were so wide-ranging and inspiring I have my work cut out for me to just keep up.  I’m not surprised that readers challenged my off-hand references to Buster Keaton’s talkies—and next week I’ll pick that thread back up—but I was surprised (read: thrilled) that the comments then spurted off in an unexpected tangent about Westerns.

Duke Roberts specifically asked: “Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.”

Why have Westerns spiffled out as a genre?  Well, I don’t want to just toss out half-baked ideas, so let me work through these things over the course of several posts.

I’d like to start off by taking a look at one particular issue: how Westerns portray Native Americans.  The Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns storylines of a lot of older Westerns weren’t meant to have the kind of deep cultural complexity that they now do—and that means that modern Westerns either have to mostly ignore the native peoples, or directly address the complicated politics involved.

If scientists were to announce tomorrow that astronomers suddenly discovered that, y’know, outer space really doesn’t exist, and in fact all those things we call stars are just sparkly lights in a solid firmament located immediately in the sky, just like the ancients believed… well, that would have ramifications for people making SF movies, and we might be sitting here talking about why nobody makes films like STAR WARS anymore.

So, what I’d like to do is take you through a mirror world of Westerns from a parallel universe that has a wholly different take on the relationship between white settlers and natives—and may help shine a light on how universal the Western genre actually is.

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Livin’ la vida 12 ANGRY MEN

12 ANGRY MEN is a dangerous movie.  It’s one of the worst threats to my productivity of any movie ever made—if I’m unlucky enough to come across it while channel surfing, I’m stuck.  I won’t be going anywhere until it’s over.  And once, the movie sucked me in pretty much literally, until I found myself living inside it, with the fate of an actual human being in the balance.

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Luck of the Drew

Lillian Travers (Edith Story) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Dr. Cassadene (Sidney Drew).  But the surprise is on her when she catches him in what sure seems like a comprising position with a wealthy widow.  He makes the requisite apologies, they make up, and it all goes pear shaped again when he blows their next rendez-vous, once again caught with the same widow.  She gives him a third chance—and as she comes out of her house to meet him, there he is, entangled in the clutches of three fawning women.  If this were any other movie, you’d expect Lillian to blow her top and walk out on him, continuing the cycle of sitcommy complications that you’ve come to expect by this point.  Oh, but A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is not any other movie.  And let us uncover its fabulousness in stages:

Smoochy!

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Eddie Cantor, Ali Baba, and the New Deal: Reading History in Film

Last Saturday morning, I spoke before a small crowd at Oakton Community College, advocating the teaching of media literacy to high-school and middle-school students. Among the many reasons for teaching media or film literacy is to understand how movies are cultural artifacts that capture the issues, problems, and concerns of the era that produced it. In my research, I found an article from the journal Social Studies in which education expert Trenia Walker, who teaches media literacy to high-school educators, noted that too often teachers use movies to “illustrate” a historical time period or event. In other words, they show something like JFK or Far and Away, because according to the teachers, “Students would see what a time period was really like” (“Historical Literacy: Reading History Through Film,” January/February 2006). But, the narrative feature film is a fictional mode, even when the story is a biopic or a historical drama based on an actual person or event. So, showing a movie in this manner misrepresents both the history and the film.

Movies can be used as a tool to help teach history but not in such a simplistic manner.  Instead, character types, plot events, themes, genre conventions, and bits of dialogue must be interpreted to understand how they recreate, reflect, or recast the issues, problems, concerns, and preoccupations of the era that produced the film. In other words, instead of showing Pearl Harbor (2001) to show the attitudes and concerns of America at the outbreak of World War II, teachers should be showing Casablanca (1942) and explaining the anti-isolationist position that is part of the film’s subtext. Unfortunately, as Ms. Walker pointed out in her article, the vast majority of teachers and schools associate “literacy” only with print media, and their methodologies and teaching models are all geared toward print literacy.

These ideas were still swirling around in my head when I attended the classic movie series at the Bank of America Theater that evening to see Eddie Cantor in Ali Baba Goes to Town, a vehicle tailor-made for the musical comedy star that turned out to be a perfect example of history via the movies.  Released in 1937, Ali Baba Goes to Town is a snapshot of Depression-era America, offering jokes, wisecracks, characters, and musical styles reflective of the politics, tastes, and culture of the time. [...MORE]

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

“I was born in and worked in a period that could be called enviable.” – Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis, who died on September 29th at age 85, never seemed to be at rest. Even in repose and in old age, he appeared to be an eternally restless spirit. Sometimes that drive got him into trouble, but it often spurred him to keep trying to be something more than he was at every stage of his existence on earth. He was a rascal, one of the last of his breed, and he became his life’s ambition since childhood: a very big movie star. He was also a good actor.

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Big Man on the Small Screen — Woody Strode on TV

I hope you’ve all gained as much respect and admiration for actor Woody Strode as I have after reading all the great posts this week, and after watching Strode in action.  Jeff referred to himself as the “loose caboose” in our Woody Strode blogathon, but I may be an even looser one.  Because I’m a particular devotee of TV, I wanted to take a look at what Woody had done in television, a medium that is often and usually less forward-thinking than the movies (possible less so today, believe it or not, I think, more because movies are so timid, not because TV is so bold).  Back in the 1950s when Strode began his acting career in earnest, America was still uneasy with mainstream black performers, even ones who had risen from the most egalitarian and open of playing fields, which happened to be the actual playing fields of sports, where Strode had made a name as one of the best college football players around and was recruited for the world-famous Los Angeles Rams team.  Clearly his impressive physicality, gridiron fame and extraordinary good looks made him an easy candidate for Hollywood talent scouts, but the color of his skin sometimes limited the kinds of roles offered to him. 

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On the Trail of Woody Strode

August marks TCM‘s annual Summer Under the Stars festival, and the Morlock’s have been given their marching orders: pick one overlooked star deserving of a week-long tribute. In 2008 it was Fred MacMurray. In 2009 it was Gloria Grahame. This year it’s Woody Strode (1914 – 1994). Strode was an athlete who turned to acting. He also broke several color barriers. First as one of four blacks who, in 1946, integrated major league pro football and, later, as a prolific actor whose first big break was in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) – which was released the same year as another memorable role for him in Spartacus. Another barrier he broke had nothing to do with the color of his skin as he was, according to Todd von Hoffman (co-author of The von Hoffman Bros.’ Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness), “Simply one of the most ridiculously perfect human specimens to ever walk the Earth.”

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