The Perils of Colleen: Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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Thank Heaven for Little Film Festivals

accidentsposterAs Hollywood continues its love affair with 12-year-old boys, who make up the desired demographic, real movie lovers seek alternatives to the noisy blockbusters that are long on CGI and short on story. Film festivals of all types and sizes have proliferated in the last fifteen years to fill the void created by Hollywood for well-crafted films with an engaging story and three-dimensional characters. I recently attended the Cine-World Film Festival in my adopted hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and I was impressed with the selection of foreign, indie, and documentary films.

Though a small, low-key fest, Cine-World has been a Sarasota fixture for 25 years. Opening day included Mike Leigh’s latest feature Mr. Turner, a biopic of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, while the fest closed with Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard, who redeems herself after slumming in Anchorman 2. Film festivals prove that Hollywood no longer has the lock on feature filmmaking; indeed, studio blockbusters seem like lumbering behemoths compared to the stripped-down indie dramas that do so much with so little. Sadly, a lack of distribution to medium and small markets continues to keep these films from audiences who would doubtless appreciate them.

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On the Road with Hackman and Pacino

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Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I take note of films that bother to put us on the map. I’m also a sucker for humanist studies of working class drifters or other misfits who seek salvation outside of the traditional institutions of marriage and family. Small surprise, then, that I’d be a fan of Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973). I first saw the film at the Telluride Film Festival a few years ago, but last year it received a wider revival thanks to a digital restoration commemorating its 40th year anniversary. Gene Hackman (who worked opposite of Al Pacino on the film) has cited it as his favorite role, because it was the only film that he ever made that allowed him to work in absolute continuity that allowed him “to take all kinds of chances and really build my character.” Odd to think now that this buddy film was originally intended for Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon, and who is to say what kind of film that would have been? All I can say in retrospect is that Hackman and Pacino shine in a way that makes it hard to picture anyone else in the title roles of, respectively, Max Millan and Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi.

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November 15, 2014
David Kalat
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Cosby, Welch, and Keitel

This is a classic movie blog, you know, so it’s supposed to be about classic movies. But there are different ways of defining “classic.” Personally I’m drawn to the definition offered up in a recent Frazz comic strip, that classic is defined by how it takes to forget something. But there are other definitions, too—and it’s worth remembering that “classic” doesn’t always mean “classy.” And that sometimes movies can be thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile without being classic. Because, let’s face it, Peter Yates’ 1976 Mother, Jugs, and Speed is not going to find itself on just about anyone’s roster of “classic films,” but it’s a surprising gem worth revisiting. It’s also not likely to turn up on TCM anytime soon, which is a shame, because it may have been too quickly forgotten for how well it works.

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KEYWORDS: Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel, Mother Jugs and Speed, Raquel Welch
COMMENTS: 10
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This Week on TCM Underground: IT’S A SMALL WORLD (1950)

It's a Small World

TCM Underground, Saturday November 15th, 2014: IT’S A SMALL WORLD, 11:00pm PST/2:00am EST. Directed by William Castle. Cast: Paul Dale, Lorraine Miller, Will Geer, Nina Koshetz, Steve Brodie, Anne Sholter, Todd Karns, Margaret Field, Shirley O. Mills, Tom Brown Henry, Harry Harvey, Paul E. Burns.

Having spent his childhood hidden away from society by his well-meaning but unenlightened father, a dwarf enters the real world, where he encounters prejudice and exploitation at the hands of a criminal gang.

When a promised A-list assignment failed to materialize at Columbia Pictures, where he had slaved for the better part of a decade making programmers for the studio’s B-unit under the vulture eye of Harry Cohn, writer-director William Castle asked to be released from his contract. Hiring on at Universal-International for a three-year separation from Cohn (who later hired him back and got him working in Technicolor), Castle also pitched projects to independent Eagle-Lion Films, the American distribution arm of England’s J. Arthur Rank Organization. Founded in 1946, the company had absorbed the bankrupt Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation and was by 1948 producing B-pictures to accompany into the cinemas such lofty British imports as Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES (1948) and Laurence Olivier’s HAMLET (1948). Seeing the cinematic possibilities in Robert Heinlein’s 1947 science fiction novel Rocket Ship Gibraltar, Castle proposed a space exploration film to be titled DESTINATION MOON but Eagle-Lion chief Arthur Krim turned him down, declaring the concept too fantastic. (Producer George Pal latched onto the discarded title and won a 1951 Academy Award for his DESTINATION MOON.) Undaunted, and with no shortage of big ideas, Castle took his sales pitch in another direction entirely. [...MORE]

Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

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Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks, one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).

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“Quiet on the Set and… PANIC!”

This month at TCM is doing things a little differently with its Star of the Month.  Instead of one, it’s selected Silent Stars as the Star of the Month and its an honorable choice.  Silent film is so different than sound film, and now so much older than the majority of films available (excluding hold-outs like Chaplin and random entries like The Artist, the last time silent films were regularly made in America was 1928), that it rarely gets the attention it deserves and this is one way to do it.  And now, 86 years removed from the last year in which silent movies were an expected commodity, it’s interesting to look back at those moments after The Jazz Singer unleashed the talking picture on the world, and see the reactions and predictions.  Below are some headlines from The New York Times to give you an idea about how momentous the event really was.

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Boob Tube: UHF (1989)

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UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.

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Valentino’s Starmaking Role in ‘The Sheik’

sheikcigaretteAs part of TCM’s series Silent Stars, Rudolph Valentino sets the small screen on fire tonight with his star-making performance in The Sheik (1921). Though Valentino had created a stir when he danced the Argentine tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was The Sheik that propelled him to superstardom. Over the next five years, Valentino would magnify his celebrity by taking on roles that exploited his sensual, exotic Latin Lover image and by exposing his colorful romantic life to the fanzines.

Valentino’s screen persona would be out of place in today’s Hollywood, where interchangeable young actors show off their buff bodies and blond highlights while tossing out snarky one-liners. Valentino’s slightly feminine face and smooth body are unusual physical traits for a leading man, while his nostril-flaring, eye-bulging acting are unfashionably melodramatic. Yet, despite his dated persona and acting style, there is much to appreciate in Valentino’s films. They are imaginative, highly romantic fantasies that evoke colorful, exotic places or eras that never really existed. And, Valentino was undeniably charismatic and energetic—a perfect combination for the silent screen. A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch Valentino on the big screen in The Eagle, the story of Russian soldier Vladimir Dubrovsky. The film opens with Dubrovsky on horseback dressed in full Russian regalia while inspecting his troops. His queen, Catherine the Great, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her advances, resulting in his banishment from the castle. Details such as Catherine the Great, a castle, soldiers on horseback, and Valentino in a cape and uniform suggested to me—and the rest of the audience—that the story takes place in the distant past. Imagine our surprise when Valentino drives away from the castle in a fancy 1920s automobile. The audience burst out laughing at the incongruity, but this type of mismatching of exotic styles and historic eras is typical of Valentino’s films, where Romance with a capital R trumps accuracy.

To set the stage for Valentino’s signature, career-making role, I offer ten facts about The Sheik, which airs at 8:00pm tonight.

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Flimsy Plot? Who Cares?

Shall We Dance is the morning movie today at TCM and if you go to the website’s schedule listing, you will find, as on practically all movies showing on TCM, a short blurb from the staff of Leonard Maltin’s reviews.  That blurb says, “Lesser Astaire-Rogers is still top musical, with Gershwin’s ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,’ ‘They All Laughed,’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ holding together flimsy plot about dance team pretending to be wed.”  I don’t quote this to denigrate Mr. Maltin or his staff because, hell, I’ve used the “flimsy plot” line myself.  My question is, what does it matter?

Flimsy Plot Shall-We-Dance

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