The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

To view Losing Ground click here.

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

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India Song: The River (1951)

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

To view The River click here.

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” - André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

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Tunnel Vision: Under Pressure (1935)

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Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge.  Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here). 

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Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

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Luck of the Draw: Wild Card (2015)

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I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.

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Forgotten 1970s: To Find a Man (1972)

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The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.

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Cahn Artist: Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead (1941) and When the Clock Strikes (1961)

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Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early  1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in  Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round)  and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate.  His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”

Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fast, and a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).

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Diamond in the Rough: The Squeaker (1937)

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The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets.  As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.

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Above and Beyond: 7th Heaven (1927)

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In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix.  But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.

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Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.