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January 30, 2016
David Kalat
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The Immigrant

For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.

Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.

I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, The Immigrant
COMMENTS: 9
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Great Actor, Wrong Performance: Part Next

Later tonight on TCM, the 1978 Oscar winner The Deer Hunter runs, starring Robert de Niro, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage, and Christopher Walken.  That last guy took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance even though I think John Savage, who wasn’t even nominated, was better.  And John Cazale, too.  Oh, it’s not that I don’t think Christopher Walken’s a great actor, I just think he got honored for the wrong performance.  It wasn’t just the wrong selection for that year but, as I just said, for the movie as well.  It happens.  A lot of times we can look over an actor’s entire career, then look at the Oscar they won, or maybe just the one movie they got nominated for, and think, “That’s what they won for?! Why?”  I’ve written here before about actors and what their signature performances are, so much so that I’ve simply subtitled this one “Part Next” because it’s a subject I’ll just keep rolling with from now until the breath leaves my body.   This time, let’s focus on the performances that should have been honored with either nomination, award, or both but weren’t.

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A Minor Picture Compendium of Classic Movie Nurses

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Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

I’ve been wrestling with a nasty cold bug all week and while perusing TCM’s Now Playing Guide I noticed that they’ve got three nurse films programmed for Saturday beginning with The Nun’s Story (1959) starting at 5PM EST/8PM PST followed by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Caretakers (1963). While I attempt to nurse myself back to health, I thought it might be beneficial (and fun!) to share “A Minor Picture Compendium of Classic Movie Nurses” with you.

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This week on TCM Underground: Some Call It Loving (aka Sleeping Beauty, 1973)

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Spectators who like to keep their fairy tales innocent, their pornography sordid, their allegories obvious and their dreams intact,” wrote critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in the pages of Film Comment in 1975, “are bound to be disconcerted by James B. Harris’ haunting SOME CALL IT LOVING… which pursues the improbabilities of dream logic to clarify rather than mystify, and tough-mindedly concerns itself with the processes and consequences of dreaming.” At that point, Rosenbaum was championing a movie that had screened to considerable favor at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and had received high marks from the French critics only to tank dismally upon the occasion of its American premiere.  Buried by its distributor, SOME KIND OF LOVING nosedived into celluloid limbo, resurfacing eventually on VHS tape in a big box eyesore that seemed to occupy every dusty bottom shelf of every video store in the land; about the only attention paid to the film in retrospect came from Mr. Skin’s Skincyclopedia: The A to Z Guide to Finding Your Favorite Actresses Naked.

250full-some-call-it-loving-artworkThough the negligible box office of SOME CALL IT LOVING did not kill the career of producer-director James B. Harris, it did him no favors. Harris had enjoyed considerable acclaim and no small degree of success between 1956 and 1963 as Stanley Kubrick’s producer, helping Kubrick to secure funding, material, and talent for such films as THE KILLING (1956), PATHS OF GLORY (1957), and LOLITA (1962). The partners had parted company with DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) when Kubrick elected to take the sober-sided source material (British author Peter George’s 1958 atomic panic novel Two Hours to Doom, aka Red Alert) in a satiric direction. Convinced that Kubrick had lost his artistic mooring, Harris made his own nuclear disaster film, THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (1965), which marked his directorial debut. As subsequent projects went into turnaround and the years began to tick by, Harris remembered a short story collection he had thumbed through during production of LOLITA.

1289306107_1c79ad380bBritish writer John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights had been published in 1951 and his elegantly ironic stories had drawn from literary critics favorable comparisons to Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. Numbered among the tales collected in that volume was “Sleeping Beauty,” the story of a dissolute Englishman with more pedigree than liquid assets who nonetheless makes the capital acquisition of a sideshow somnambulist, a beautiful young woman seemingly straight out of the eponymous fairytale. Harris saw in the story a parable about desire and denial and began crafting what would be his sophomore directorial effort, relocating the action from a Regency house in southern England to a castle poised above the craggy coast Southern California. To play his conflicted protagonist, Harris cast TV actor Zalman King, then best known as the star of the short-lived THE YOUNG LAWYERS, a weekly legal drama that had run for a single season on CBS.  As the object of King’s affection, Harris took a gamble on Tisa Farrow, kid sister to ROSEMARY’S BABY star Mia Farrow, who had had an ornamental role in René Clément’s 1972 heist film AND HOPE TO DIE (1972). Supporting roles were doled out to comic Richard Pryor (who had not yet established himself as an actor), British actress Carol White, and former THE MUNSTERS trouper Pat Priest.

Principal photography got underway late in 1972 under the working title SLEEPING BEAUTY, until the threat of legal action from Walt Disney Productions prompted Harris to go with the interim title DREAM GIRL before settling on SOME CALL IT LOVING. Shot at various compass points along the Pacific Coast Highway by Italian cinematographer Mario Tosi (whose picaresque career runs the gamut from the softcore 1964 “nudie cutie” SINDERELLA AND THE GOLDEN BRA and American International Pictures’ 1972 revenge-of-nature thriller FROGS to Brian DePalma’s CARRIE [1976] and Richard Rush’s THE STUNT MAN [1977]), SOME CALL IT LOVING plays like an American spin on the erotic works of such cult impresarios as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin or the sensual excesses of Bronx expatriate Radley Metzger, albeit channeled through the unmistakable aesthetic of James B. Harris. Very much the wild card in the deck of Harris’ brief but impressive directing CV, SOME CALL IT LOVING nonetheless reflects Harris’ abiding interest in the power of fantasy to by turns empower and destroy the dreamer.

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Several of Harris’ subsequent projects would fall victim to executive caprice or studio regime changes; his only other credit through the 70s is as a producer of Don Siegel’s so-so 1977 Charles Bronson programmer TELEFON – interestingly, about Soviet “sleeper” agents embedded in American society. He returned to the public eye with FAST WALKING (1982), a flinty prison drama/crime caper starring James Woods. Harris and Woods would reteam for COP (1988) – the first feature film based on a book by James Ellroy – and Harris’ final directing credit to date is the French-financed BOILING POINT (1993), starring a post-comeback Dennis Hopper and a pre-stardom Viggo Mortensen. Despite the relative brevity of his directing résumé (and the barracking he received from man-and-wife movie critics Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell over SOME CALL IT LOVING), Harris enjoys to this day remarkable critical currency. “Harris’ films are inglorious, pipe-dream-beleaguered gutterdives, with the cheap integrity of bygone pulp fiction,” wrote Michael Atkinson in 1999. “Harris has kept faith with the basic principles of genre without succumbing to neo-anything, homage, or pretension.”

Sources:

James B. Harris interview by Nick Pinkerton, FilmComment.com, 2015

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David and Joe Henry (Algonquin Books, 2013)

Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema by Michael Atkinson (Hal Leonard Corp., 1999)

Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Early Hitchcock: Which Would You Select?

blogopenerOnce again, I am teaching a section on Hitchcock to my advanced film history course. I told the students that we would study one filmmaker this semester, and I let them choose a director from a short list. The students selected Hitchcock, which was also the choice last year. The Hitchcock section consists of four films, one from his early period in England and three from his Hollywood career. I am letting the students pick the director’s Hollywood-produced movies, but I will start out with a film from his early period when he was England’s best and brightest director. Ay, there’s the rub. I can’t seem to decide which early Hitchcock to show.

Last summer, I was undecided about whether to show Night Moves or The Long Goodbye in my film noir course. I put the choice to the knowledgeable Morlocks readers, and based on your helpful input, I decided on The Long Goodbye. So, I thought I would ask for your educated opinions once more.

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Introducing… The Stars Make Their Debuts

Tonight on TCM, No Way Out, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s controversial 1950 film dealing with racism and violence that marked Sidney Poitier’s screen debut.  As debuts go, it’s one of the better ones out there.  In fact, it’s what you would call a “star turn.”  It may have been Poitier’s first movie but he was clearly destined to become a star, his onscreen confidence and charisma well in evidence from the outset.   But many stars have far more inauspicious debuts.  So many of the classic Hollywood actors are so famous to us now from their superstar years that it seems strange to think of them spending years playing small parts before being discovered by the public.  And yet, so many of them did.  Below are some of my favorite debuts, from the biggest and best to the smallest and oddest.  It’s a rather incomplete listing due to the fact that there are still so many debut movies I haven’t seen due to the fact that the movies themselves never made a dent in the public consciousness and are unavailable anywhere.

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January 23, 2016
David Kalat
Posted by:

Musty Suffer

It’s March 1, 1916 (or its November 1915 if you want to be pedantic and argumentative. I know who you are, and I’m ready for you). Let’s start again: It’s March 1, 1916. There. This is the day that the first film in the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is released: Cruel and Unusual.

For the next two years, Musty Suffer’s mishaps will unspool over a raucous cycle of unruly two-reel shorts, full of surreal imagery and violent slapstick. Largely forgotten today, but available to the curious in an outstanding set of DVDs, the Musty Suffer films are remarkable both for what they are and also for what they are not. They are artifacts of what happens when talented and inventive people go significantly out of their way to take the road not traveled. And to understand just why these singular oddities deserve special attention beyond their immediate joys, we need to focus on the significance of that date—these would make sense if they’d been a few years before, or a few years after. But 1916?

That’s just nuts.

 

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Musty Suffer, Silent comedy, Slapstick
COMMENTS: 10
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Is There Really Such A Thing As An Instant Classic?

Tonight on TCM, the prime time lineup features four movies with Emma Thompson.  Since Emma didn’t arrive on the movie making scene until well after the Golden Age of Hollywood, the movies being shown are slightly newer.  In fact, each of the movies was made in the nineties.  To be specific, Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Impromptu (1991), and Remains of the Day (1993).  The oldest, Impromptu, places us a solid 25 years back while the most recent, Sense and Sensibility, just barely sneaks past the two decade mark at 21 years old.  Now the name of the channel is Turner Classic Movies and, more than once, I’ve gotten into conversations here and elsewhere about what exactly defines a classic movie.  It’s a subject of which I have never grown tired but now I’d like to throw aside age requirements and delve into the area of the instant classic.  Do they exist or is that just a meaningless moniker?  And if they do, do any of the four movies airing tonight fit that category?  If not, what movies from the nineties do?  And the aughts?  And today?

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’60s Spy Stories: Gila Golan

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Gila Golan in Our Man Flint (1966)

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I love ’60s spy movies! They typically contain more style than substance and seem to delight in ridiculous plot lines, campy performances, sexual innuendoes and questionable morals but that’s part of their appeal. Next Monday viewers who tune into TCM in the evening hours will be treated to an assortment of “’60s Spy Stories” beginning with Arabesque (1966) at 8PM EST/5PM PST followed by The Ipcress File (1965), Our Man Flint (1966), Our Man in Havana (1959 -not exactly a ’60s production but it will fit right in), The Prize (1963) and Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966). I’ve written or referenced most of these films here at the Movie Morlocks in the past but today I wanted to focus my attention on one of my favorite female undercover agents, the gorgeous and deadly Gila Golan who takes on James Coburn in Our Man Flint.

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