Character Dies, Smiles All Around

“If you want a happy ending that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

We’re probably all familiar with that observation by Orson Welles and in most cases, it holds true. Stop One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has brought much needed relief  in the form of a wild private party, shall we say, to the ward and cured Billy Bibbet’s stutter, and you’ve got a happy ending.  Keep the movie going a few more minutes and, well, not so much.  Going those extra few minutes leads to a couple of character deaths and none of it is exhilarating or feel-good in any way.  Surprisingly, that’s not always the case.  Even when we like the characters, their death may be the only satisfactory way out and one in which the audience anticipates and expects it to happen.

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Beware! Louis Jourdan is Here

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Louis Jourdan in COUNT DRACULA (1977)

We lost Louis Jourdan on Valentine’s Day and since then there has been an abundance of considerate obituaries and tributes to the debonair French actor who stole film fan’s hearts and swept many of his leading ladies off their feet. Jourdan was strikingly handsome but I’ve always found him a bit intimidating on screen. In real life Jourdan had fought Nazis as an active member of the French resistance and by most accounts was a loyal husband to his wife (Berthe Frédérique “Quique”) for 68 years until her death in 2014 but something about his smoldering intensity and somber eyes made me uneasy. The characters he played were often hard to read and I found myself constantly questioning their motives. This is undoubtedly due to his exceptional performances in films such as LETTER FROM AN UKNOWN WOMAN (1948) where he plays a self-absorbed pianist who breaks Joan Fontaine’s heart and THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959) where he drives the gorgeous Suzy Parker mad with jealousy or JULIE (1956) where he stalks and terrorizes poor Doris Day. In retrospect Jourdan was incredibly apt at portraying men with questionable motives and he had a viper-like way of honing in on naive young women who became easy prey. It doesn’t surprise me that he eventually ended up playing a comic-book villain in SWAMPTHING (1982) and a James Bond baddie in OCTOPUSSY (1983). But if I had to select his most fearsome role I’d single out Jourdan’s outstanding turn as the infamous bloodsucking Count in COUNT DRACULA (1977).

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TCM Underground: The Greatest Hits

TCM Underground

So a couple of weeks ago, big fat baby that I am, I gassed on about my TCM Underground wish list, pie-in-the-skying my own ideas about what should be on TCM Underground and copping a total “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” attitude when I should have been offering gratitude for what is in 2015 almost a full decade of delightfully weird late night TV programming. In a gesture of atonement, I offer my highly subjective, wholly personal, perhaps indefensible Greatest Hits of TCM Underground, those movies that have put me in the zone and made me willing to stay up for three hours after the rest of my family has gone to bed. And so, in no particular order…  [...MORE]

Hollywood Jazz History: Syncopation (1942)

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“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation

Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges  the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper).  Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.

The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.

 

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Home-wreckers, Commies, and Panicky Producers: The 31st Academy Awards

Print from collection of library prints for book High Exposure: Hollywood Lives - Found Photos from the Archives of the Los Angeles Times." but was not used in book.Movie lovers anxiously await the 87th Academy Awards next Sunday, February 22, though many of us have grown profoundly disappointed in the changes in the show over the last few years. In 2009, the Academy decided to drop the on-air tributes to those who were awarded honorary Oscars; around the same time, the show’s producers and/or directors chose to eliminate the compilations of clips of classic films that used to mark each ceremony. Both decisions were short-sighted, robbing the Academy of an opportunity to teach young generations about the great films of the past. If the Academy is so interested in preservation and education, then they should model that behavior during this high-profile event.

 

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Actor or Director: Take Your Pick

Today on TCM, John Huston has a few movies on the schedule, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo.   Not showing are any of the movies he acted in but he did both and did both well.  Many actors also direct (Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Ida Lupino) and many directors also act (John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock) while others did both from the start and are so intertwined as actor/directors, it’s hard to single them out as mainly one or the other (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton).   Still, we have our preferences in all things in life and choosing between an acting career and a directing career might as well be one of them, too.  When it comes to actors who only directed one or two movies, like, say, Lionel Barrymore or Charles Laughton, it’s an easy call so I won’t be talking about them.  For others, it’s harder but clear preferences still arise.

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February 14, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

Masters of Screwball Part 2: The Trouble with Mitchell

Once upon a time there was a Hollywood director at the top of his game. He made movies that were widely popular, influential, critically esteemed, and profitable. He was a visual stylist and a practitioner of high Hollywood glamour. He coaxed great performances from top stars. He was on the short list for producers looking to staff their prestige pictures.

But say the name “Mitchell Leisen” today and be prepared for blank stares. I wager that many of the classic movie buffs who would spend their Saturday mornings reading this blog are unlikely to have much beyond a passing familiarity with his name.

So what happened? How did someone who flew so high fall into such obscurity? Ironically, the answer is his own success.

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KEYWORDS: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Easy Living, Midnight, Mitchell Leisen
COMMENTS: 10
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Big Horror or Little Horror

Today is Friday the 13th and that means absolutely nothing to me.  Seriously, nothing.  But for a lot of people, it means bad luck and for some other people, it means horror, principally because of a series of horror movies titled after this illustrious and ultimately meaningless combination of day and date that happens every so often in a calendar year.   When I think of those horror movies, the Friday the 13th ones, I mean, I think Little Horror.  When I think of Poltergeist, airing today on TCM, I think Big Horror.   Little Horror and Big Horror have absolutely nothing to do with quality and everything to do with budget and effects.  Sometimes, I like one, sometimes the other.  But no matter which I may like on any given Friday the 13th, I always pretty much believe little horror is the right way to go about it.  Let’s look at this a little more closely.

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Oliver Reed at 77: A Conversation

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Tune into TCM on Febuary 20th to catch Oliver Reed in OLIVER! directed by his uncle, Carol Reed.

Feb. 13th marks what would have been Oliver Reed’s 77th birthday if he was still with us. Reed died in 1999 but he has long been one of my favorite actors so to honor his memory I decided to contact filmmaker Kent Adamson who worked with Oliver Reed in the 1980s and is friendly with the actor’s son (Mark). What follows is a lengthy Q&A where Kent generously shares his own recollections and thoughts about the actor’s life and career. I hope you’ll enjoy reading our exchange as much as I enjoyed taking part in it.

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O Pioneers… of African-American Cinema! Help Kino-Lorber tell the story of the first black filmmakers!

African-American Pioneers

The New York City-based Kino International has come a long way, baby, since its founding in 1977. Always pure-of-heart and forever steadfast in its dedication to releasing to the home theater marketplace films of artistic or historic significance, Kino had the reputation for many years of being worthwhile but stodgy. The films were important, yes (when nobody else had James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE, Kino had James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE), and we were grateful, but the presentation could be workmanlike, unexciting, the transfers offered in “as is” condition, with little to no supplemental shotgun. In the boom days of DVD, with so much bonus material handed out like Halloween treats by such niche market independents as Anchor Bay, Image Entertainment, Blue Underground, Synapse Films, NoShame Films, Severin Films, Dark Sky Films (to name but a few), Kino seemed still to be putting out the ribbon candy. One gratefully accepted soberly packaged copies of, say, A WINTER TAN (1987) or THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (1960) and said “Thank you you very much, Grandma” and then ran outside to play with HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) or THE TOOL BOX MURDERS (1977) because hey had all the cool toys. While Kino will never have the deep pockets of other companies, they have tried to lift their game, and it is not at all uncommon these days for a Kino release to hit the street with a kickass audio commentary (coughTHE DEVIL BATcough, coughTHE DEATH KISS cough) to sweeten the deal. But something even newer and more exciting is brewing behind closed doors at Kino-Lorber, as the company is more properly known (it’s a merger thing, don’t sweat the details) and we can all be a part of making it happen.   [...MORE]

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