Dr. Caligari: A Macabre Tale by Haunted Writers

drctitlecard (1)The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
airs tonight on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film, the 15-part documentary series about the history of world cinema.  Episode 3 covers German Expressionism, so tonight’s TCM schedule also includes F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Along with Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, Dr. Caligari is a staple in many introductory film courses, including mine.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen this story of a madman who manipulates a sleepwalker into killing for him well over 100 times. I was sad to discover that it is slated for 2:15am EST, forcing those who want to catch it to set their DV-Rs or other time-shifting devices. Given its importance, it deserves to kick off the evening’s programming.


The Incredible Shrinking Woman

As our weeklong tribute to Richard Matheson nears its conclusion, I thought it was high time that someone got around to commenting on Matheson’s comedy work. The only problem is, Matheson wasn’t really a comedy writer and didn’t have much in the way of comedy work. I could have gone with The Raven, or the Buster Keaton episode of The Twilight Zone–these would all have been solid choices. But man do I have a soft spot for the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman.



Considering Richard Matheson and Somewhere in Time

SITposterA blogathon by TCM’s Movie Morlocks has been long overdue, and no topic seemed more appropriate than the work of novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Saddened by his passing on June 23, we wanted to express our admiration and appreciation by exploring his novels, films, and television shows. Matheson has been narrowly pegged as a genre writer because of his celebrated forays into horror and science fiction, but his lengthy career has actually yielded a diverse body of work.  The range of that writing will be revealed as we examine his stories, novels, and films throughout the week.

Richard Matheson began writing during the early 1950s, penning his first major success in 1956 with The Shrinking Man. When Universal wanted to adapt the novel for the big screen, he agreed on the condition that he write the screenplay for what became The Incredible Shrinking Man. Next Saturday, Morlock David Kalat will re-visit the updated version of the story, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin. In 1959, Matheson, who had always wanted to write for the movies, began collaborating with Roger Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, including The Pit and Pendulum, which Shannon Clute discusses next Sunday. Dovetailing nicely with Matheson’s collaborations with Corman on the big screen was his work on the iconic television anthology series The Twilight Zone.  He became the third most prolific scriptwriter for the show, after Rod Serling and head scribe Charles Beaumont. R. Emmett Sweeney examines Matheson’s TZ career tomorrow, focusing on the episode “Steel” from Season 5.  In the 1970s, Matheson mastered the telefilm when the format was at its peak of popularity and creativity.  He wrote The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror, and my favorite, The Night Stalker, among others. Greg Ferrara discusses what is arguably Matheson’s best telefilm, Duel—and young  Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length effort. Kimberly Limbergs reveals that Matheson’s work was not exclusive to Hollywood by examining Les seins de grace, a French thriller about a female killer based on his novel Someone Is Bleeding.  Most know Matheson as a writer of horror and science fiction; on Friday, R. H. Smith reveals why the author deserves his stellar reputation in those genres in his article on Hell House and The Legend of Hell House.




The Sin of Harold Lloyd

Alone among the great silent comics, Harold Lloyd stood at the exact intersection of slapstick and screwball, at the intersection of physical comedy and dialogue.  Harold Lloyd, you see, made a film with Preston Sturges.  It was neither man’s greatest hour, but the mere fact of its existence is breathtaking.  It’s like finding Ernst Lubitsch directing Charlie Chaplin, or Blake Edwards directing Laurel and Hardy.

Let’s take stock of this for a minute: we have one of the greatest physical comedians of the entire silent era—a man whose work bequeathed to posterity one of the most enduring icons of what silent comedy was all about—yet who is also preternaturally comfortable with the world of talkies.  He is paired with a visionary of the new dialogue school of comedy—yet one who has an enduring appreciation of the values of silent comedy.  They are going to collaborate as equals on a film that will be made without studio interference.  If there is ever going to be a moment when the old guard of silent comedians are going to function uncompromised in this new world of screwball, then there could be no better opportunity than this.


Funny Lady: Nora Ephron

Before the deaths of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine dealt a double blow to Baby Boomers who have fond memories of both actors, Nora Ephron passed away from leukemia. Boomers grew up on the television series of Griffith and Borgnine, and the latter costarred in a number of landmark films of the 1950s and 1960s, which accounts for the outpouring of genuine sentiment at their passing.  As a screenwriter and director, Ephron was not in a position to inspire that level of collective grief. But, her career deserves an evaluation or assessment, because she was one of the few women directors in Hollywood.

Prior to poking around a bit for this article, I did not know a lot about Ephron. I have never used one of her films in any of my classes, and, truth be told, I did not find her to be a dynamic director. Her scripts may be rich in humorous observations and witty exchanges between characters, but her directorial efforts were uneven to say the least. The best of them were adequately directed and enhanced by star turns (Sleepless in Seattle; Julie & Julia); the worst (Mixed Nuts; Bewitched) suffered from static blocking, sluggish pacing, and poor staging of the physical comedy. However, as I looked into Ephron’s career, I realized that I was wrong to short-change her. After all, her scripts and characters represent a style of film humor that is far more sophisticated and universal than today’s clunky, crude comedies targeted to males or the flat, offensive chick flicks aimed at girls. Ephron’s perspective as a mature, contemporary woman represents a voice or point of view that adult women can recognize and relate to; yet, it does not alienate other factions of the audience. Ephron did not make chick flicks—instead, she wrote and directed comedies with female protagonists that had something to say. Her films offer universal observations, perspectives, and themes about relationships that are relevant to both genders and most age groups—much like the intended audience for movies during previous eras of Hollywood.


Seven vs. Dr. Phibes

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  And I was wrong.

I figured the breakout thriller to see in 1995 was going to be Copycat.  I know, I know, but hear me out—I wasn’t alone.  A lot of industry press at the time leaned the same way.  The previews for Copycat made it look like Silence of the Lambs meets Thelma and Louise, and it has Sigourney Weaver in it.  Actually, that’s about all I can say—I never did see Copycat, which puts me squarely in the majority.

Instead, when my wife Julie and I decided to go to the theater, she insisted on Seven instead (or Se7en, if I’m going to follow the conventions of Video Watchdog, which I might as well).  She advocated loudly, strongly, and effectively for Se7en, and god bless her for it.


Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.


Quatermass and the X

Quatermass creator and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (1922 – 2006) has his roots in the Isle of Man, a small patch of over 200 square miles in size that is located between Great Britain and Ireland. Megalithic monuments that heralded a new development in human technology began to appear on the Isle of Man during the Neolithic Age. At present, the island is the center for various competing private space travel companies that are vying for a thirty million dollar Google Lunar X Prize, organized by the X Prize Foundation. “X” marks the spot, and in this case it’s where reality and space travel intersect, bringing us back to Nigel Kneale and The Quatermass Xperiment (U.S. title: The Creeping Unknown), which was the first feature film to introduce his beloved alien-battling character of Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. [...MORE]

Cabin Fever

Jerry Aronson, one of my weekly poker game buddies, gave me a last-minute invitation to a sneak-preview. Jerry’s a retired film instructor, and the movie in question was by one of his former students who had graduated back in 1998. That student was Drew Goddard, who later found success as a writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Lost (to mention only his TV work, he also scripted Cloverfield, as well as its pending sequel, and Robopocalypse – which Spielberg will release next year). Drew is currently scheduled to set the world on fire this Friday the 13th with The Cabin in the Woods, a directorial debut he co-wrote and co-produced with Joss Whedon. [...MORE]

Enter Carl Reiner

Last month, Carl Reiner turned 90 years old. A show business veteran, to say the least, Reiner began on stage in the late 1940s, became an Emmy-nominated member of Sid Caesar’s TV sketch series Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, produced and wrote The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s, then turned to directing comedy films in the 1980s. The breadth of his career, in which he collaborated with everyone from Sid Caesar to Mel Brooks to Dick Van Dyke to Steve Martin, is truly remarkable.  While I admire the whole of Reiner’s career, right up to his appearances in Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans series, I became a fan because of two films:  The Thrill of It All (1963) and Enter Laughing (1967). Both offer examples of Reiner’s specialty—spoofing the conventions and archetypes of various modes of popular entertainment.

Starring Doris Day and James Garner, The Thrill of It All is one of Day’s romantic comedies from the 1960s, and it will be part of TCM’s salute to Doris Day as Star of the Month. Beginning on April 2 and ending April 6, TCM will be showing 28 of Day’s films, with The Thrill of It All scheduled for Thursday evening. Reiner wrote the screenplay for The Thrill of It All, based on a story he conceived with legendary TV writer Larry Gelbart—an example of Reiner’s talent for picking the right collaborators. In this domestically based comedy, Doris Day plays stay-at-home mom Beverly Boyer, who is wife to successful obstetrician Dr. Gerald Boyer. Because of her “regular housewife” honesty, Beverly is hired as the spokesperson for Happy Soap, a detergent and hand soap company that sponsors a popular television drama. In addition to being the face of Happy Soap for print ads, Beverly goes to the studio a couple times a week to appear during the commercial break of the live drama to tout the virtues of Happy products. The television industry is shown through the point of view of Beverly, who is depicted as a rational person in the real world, just like us. Like Beverly, we see the producers, ad executives, writers, etc. from an outsider’s perspective. The artifice, pretense, and manipulative nature of the entertainment and advertising industries seem alien and slightly ridiculous to us. Adopting this strategy allows Reiner to affectionately poke fun at the familiar conventions of television storytelling—just  enough to spoof but not skewer them.


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