Posted by David Kalat on March 5, 2011
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.
Posted by David Kalat on November 20, 2010
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:
Posted by Susan Doll on May 3, 2010
This month on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, TCM will offer “Race in Hollywood: Native American Images on Film,” a series that has culled the archives to spotlight both positive and negative images of American Indians. The films will be hosted by Robert Osborne and Professor Hanay Geiogamah, the director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA and the editor of American Indian Culture and Research Journal, among other accomplishments. The series begins tomorrow, May 4, with “The Westerns of John Ford,” continues throughout the month, and then concludes on May 27, with “Films about Native Americans from Outside Hollywood.” Much like a museum exhibition of photographic stills or fine art, the series offers a window into American history and culture as well as a showcase of craftsmanship and artistry. To support this unique, well-curated series, the Movie Morlocks will blog this week on topics related to American Indians on film. Please check back each day this week for a thoughtful, engaging article by my knowledgeable and insightful colleagues.
On May 20, three films are scheduled to illustrate “Indians Dealing with Racism.” The evening opens with one of my favorite westerns, Devil’s Doorway, a 1950 black-and-white western directed by Anthony Mann starring Robert Taylor as a Shoshone who loses everything because of the racism inherent in the coming of civilization. Taylor plays Broken Lance, whose white name is Lance Poole; his dual name signifies his status as a man stuck between two worlds. Lance has returned to his home near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, after serving honorably in the Civil War and earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lance finds that civilization has been encroaching on Medicine Bow in his absence, with lawyers settling in town, homesteaders looking to stake claims, and residents working to make Wyoming a territory. Based on his experiences back East, Lance also has progressive ideas to bring to the territory, particularly in regard to his family’s land, which is the richest in the region. But, with civilization comes laws and social institutions designed to protect and reward the dominant culture, which is that of white men. The new laws have made Lance’s land vulnerable to homesteading, because his father didn’t have a deed to the land, like most of the original generation of ranchers who settled the West. He seeks the help of a woman lawyer to work within the system to obtain a legal right to his own land, but the laws were not designed to help him. Instead, the new laws designate Indians to be wards of the government and, therefore, non-citizens with no rights.
Posted by Moira Finnie on March 31, 2010
This is the second part of a profile of actress Helen Walker. The first part can be seen here.
“No wonder so many actors are out of work,…considering all the lousy scripts the agents hand you…with such big build-ups. They’re nearly all tripe. The dialogue is all the same. Everything’s been done before. I’ve read 15 or 20 scripts in the last three weeks and only one was any good.”
–Helen Walker, in one of her more impolitic public comments to a reporter in the 1940s.
After almost three years in Hollywood, Helen Walker‘s life and career came to a turning point by the mid-1940s. As seen in the first part of this two part blog on the actress, found here, Walker had proven that she could hold her own in fast comedic company with popular successes such as Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Murder, He Says (1945). She had also shown an untapped capacity for drama evidenced by her effectiveness in The Man on Half Moon Street (1943). Critics had begun to describe her as a “charmingly different personality,” noting her poise and ability to uncover a laugh or a character nuance–sometimes despite the quality of the rest of the production. Still, Paramount persisted in using their contractee’s services in several B movies destined for Broadway grind houses and a dismal spot on the lower halves of double bills. Walker refused to appear in one more ill-conceived comedy, (1945′s all-star melange, Duffy’s Tavern (1945), based on a popular radio show), followed by another, Follow That Woman (1945). She also made the tactical error of bluntly pointing out to a Los Angeles Times reporter that she felt “stymied…while waiting confidently for ‘grown-up’ parts.”
Posted by Moira Finnie on March 17, 2010
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.
Posted by Moira Finnie on February 17, 2010
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.
Posted by Moira Finnie on January 20, 2010
My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër′) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.
Crude, raw and disturbing, Two Seconds (1932) is being broadcast on TCM on Thursday, Jan. 21st, at 11:45am. First released in the middle of 1932, audiences flocked to see this financially successful but dramatically grim tale about the thoughts and memories that flash through the mind of a man just as he is about to die in the electric chair. Perhaps some of them felt as though they were walking the last mile too. After Americans had witnessed 13 million jobs evaporating into thin air since 1929, watching nationwide unemployment rise to 23.6 %, wouldn’t logic tell us that most people might want to go to the movies to escape a reality they could not control? Apparently not, especially when Warner Brothers had the good fortune to have several talented individuals involved in this film. [...MORE]
Posted by Moira Finnie on January 6, 2010
“Why, oh, why, isn’t character actor Vladimir Sokoloff around to sit down with Robert Osborne for a chin wag on these two fascinating topics?”
Such is our fate. As latter day observers of both cultural phenomena, we may ponder the origins of The Method as well as the sometimes wondrous (and just plain odd) movies that emerged from American perceptions of Russian history in the 20th century.
For Sokoloff, these topics were part of his life. He had trained at the Moscow Art Theater as a youth, seen the Russian Revolution sweep the world he’d grown up in aside, become a prominent actor in German silents during the Weimar years, moved on to a career in France when the Nazis came to power, and finally landed on his agile feet in America.
Posted by Moira Finnie on December 16, 2009
“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters. Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.
Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week. The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 9, 2009
The Morlocks’ tribute to Robert Ryan, which leads up to Turner’s multi-film celebration of the actor on November 10-11, has not only offered insightful comments on some of his most famous performances but also shed light on his lesser known films. Interestingly, there has been a notable preference for Ryan’s dark characters—the bigots, the villains, and the self-centered predators, probably because his antagonists were never two-dimensional bad guys with the black hats and two-day beards but all-too-real humans with hidden demons. However, Ryan’s choice of film roles was too eclectic not to recognize the diversity, so I selected a less-acknowledged film in his filmography to write about—God’s Little Acre.
God’s Little Acre was a box-office success when it was released in 1958, making it one of Ryan’s most popular films with movie-going audiences of his day, though it is virtually unknown now. The movie was based on the 1933 novel by Erskine Caldwell, which was controversial during the Depression for its explicit sexual scenes. When the novel was first published, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for disseminating pornography. Many writers, editors, and critics of the day rallied to support Caldwell, and the judge in charge of the case ruled in the book’s favor. The case was a famous First-Amendment-rights battle, which undoubtedly helped make the novel a best-seller. However, it took 20 years and the relaxation of the Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code for the novel to come to the big screen.
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