From Flappers to Feminists: The Movie Versions of Chicago

CHICAGO, Phyllis Haver, 1927

When I lived in Chicago, I enjoyed learning the city’s history—not the events you find in text books but the city’s pop culture history. Chicago was that toddlin’ town where notorious gangsters opened red-hot nightclubs in which soon-to-be-famous singers and comedians launched their careers; or, serial killers trolled for victims at the larger-than-life Columbian Exposition of 1893; or, the yellow press turned nobodies into celebrities because the competition to sell papers was so cutthroat. (See last week’s post on the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal.)


Remade, Reworked, and Recycled: Who Knew?

The big Hollywood studios continue to insist that audiences will line up around the block to see movie remakes, though that is counter to conversations I overhear at theaters or among movie-goers. Even my students groan at the idea, often asking me why Hollywood insists on remaking popular movies. Remake mania is so rampant that studios are reworking films from less than a generation ago.



Among the retools for 2016 was Ben-Hur, which has been called the biggest box-office bomb of the year so far. The reboot of Ghostbusters hit the screens this summer, which alienated fanboys, but the movie delighted many of my female students who accepted its shortcomings in exchange for women characters of all sizes and types. Happily, not all remakes are cause for groans and moans. I just saw Antoine Fuqua’s interpretation of The Magnificent Seven, which was a well-executed update that can compete with the original in terms of star power, action scenes, and a satisfying ending. It’s a bona fide classic western that looks contemporary.


Unusual Commentary Tracks


Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

“Discover a savage world whose only law was lust!”


Today TCM is airing a batch of great fantasy and adventure films produced by Hammer starring some of the studio’s most memorable leading ladies including the exotic brunette beauty Martine Beswick in PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967), blond bombshell, Ursula Andress in SHE (1965) and the ravishing redhead, Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966). ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. is undoubtedly the most popular and widely seen film of the bunch thanks to a lucrative distribution deal with 20th Century Fox and financing from Seven Arts Productions that allowed Hammer to hire the up-and-coming Welch and procure the services of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. The bigger budget for ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. also allowed Hammer to shoot the film on the exotic Canary Islands where the rocky volcanic landscape and lush beachfronts made for a surprisingly believable primordial setting. The plot was based on the similarly titled 1940 Hal Roach film starring Victor Mature, Lon Chaney Jr. and Carole Landis that was nominated for a number of Academy Awards. The Hammer remake didn’t receive any award nominations but it did become the studio’s most commercially successful film and it made Raquel Welch an international star.


September 6, 2014
David Kalat
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The Arsenio Lupin Show

As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, I do at least have some good news to report. No, international terrorism is still a thing. Violence still reigns across Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza strip, and Ukraine. Injustice and racism still festers here at home, and the income gap widens. But… on this September 11, TCM is gonna run the 1938 Arense Lupin Returns, and if you’re too impatient to wait until then, you can go to Warner Archive and get a DVD double feature of that delightful treat and its even more fabulous predecessor, the Pre-Code gem Arsene Lupin. So, there are silver linings, if you know where to look.


KEYWORDS: Arsene Lupin
July 12, 2014
David Kalat
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Dawn of the Rise of the Conquest of the Escape of the Planet of the Apes

In honor of this week’s debut of the latest outing in The Planet of the Apes franchise, I rewatched Tim Burton’s 2001 misbegotten reboot.  It was like picking at a scab that wouldn’t heal—I know I wasn’t doing myself any favors by watching it, but I couldn’t help it.  And along the way I ran across an essay on that Apes misfire I’d written at the time but never published.  I’ve dusted that piece off and thought I’d share it here.


KEYWORDS: Planet of the Apes
May 17, 2014
David Kalat
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2B OR NOT 2B (2)

As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday.  It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.

Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities.  Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.”  But there’s a difference.  Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty.  The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.

By contrast, Brooks nails every gag.  He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.

My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what?  Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.

But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.


KEYWORDS: Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks, To Be or Not To Be
May 3, 2014
David Kalat
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They Who Get Slapped

This week’s story begins with the Three Stooges, and ends with zombies.

The story starts in 1957, when Columbia Pictures shut down the Three Stooges’ production unit and released the aging comedy stars.  The Stooges had been poking each other in the eye for 22 years—and that’s just for Columbia Pictures’ theatrical shorts division—they’d been a comedy team for over three decades by that point.

In one of the crazy ironies that make life so baffling and interesting, being fired by Columbia more or less coincided with the pinnacle of their popularity.  The studio’s licensing arm Screen Gems sold a package of Stooges comedies to TV, where they ended up on after-school broadcasts to a whole generation of viewers.

The ratings went through the roof, and Columbia could barely keep up, selling old Stooges comedies to meet the demand.

But here’s the thing: the actual comedians responsible for those insanely successful films weren’t getting a dime from any of this resurgent interest.  They were unemployed, with no direct way to profit in their own popularity.


KEYWORDS: Monty Python, Night of the Living Dead, Night of the Living Dead 1968, Remakes, The Three Stooges
March 1, 2014
David Kalat
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While the City Sleeps: Hell, Yeah!

Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.


KEYWORDS: Dana Andrews, Fritz Lang, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, M, Vincent Price, While the City Sleeps

Diabolique vs. Scream of Fear

I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it.  But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.

Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings.  Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself.  “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”



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