September 26, 2015
David Kalat
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Preston Sturges Origin Story

Preston Sturges was a born storyteller, he just didn’t know it. For a very long time.

He was also born to make screwball comedies—for a while, he actually lived a screwball plot. He started dating Eleanor Hutton, a proper heiress with a high society family. He dated a lot of girls, but this one struck a nerve. They started thinking seriously about marriage. But when these thoughts were shared with the Hutton clan, there were the usual “oh my!”s and monocles dropping into wineglasses. The Huttons were sure their daughter was acting up to provoke them, certain this roustabout boyfriend of hers was just a gold-digger.

But threatening to cut her off did not deter the boyfriend. Instead, the two eloped—while the papers went mad with the story of the runaway heiress and her playwright lover.

For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that Sturges’ movie-ready romance turned out to be a bust. Instead, let’s spend some time luxuriating in this period of Preston’s life, when he started to find his way into Hollywood, in the most half-assed way possible.



Anthologize Me

Tonight on TCM, anthologies rule the night.  Studio One, Kraft Theater, Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, they’re all here, showing their brand of short, stand-alone story telling, the kind television did so well in its early days.  Sometimes you’ve got a good story to tell and, frankly, it won’t take more than 27 minutes (or 53 in the case of the hour long shows – can you believe there was a time when there were only three minutes of commercials per half hour of televison?).  Some of my favorite television viewing has come from anthology shows and in the eighties, I always looked forward to a new episode of American Playhouse where they featured productions of plays, short subjects, and other original works on a weekly basis where each production had different actors in a completely different story.  Anthology shows nowadays tend to run an entire season (True Detective, American Horror Story) rather than change up the story and characters for each episode.  It still happens that way on occasion, such as Black Mirror from Britain, but with less success (two series, seven episodes, total). And once Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Thriller hit the small screen, anthology shows became increasingly associated with crime, mystery, and the supernatural.   Still, it’s a great way to get a lot of points across, from many different points of view, in a single show.  Here are some of my favorites over the years.



The Power of the Pantsuit


TCM’s Star of the Month, Susan Hayward, in a publicity still for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) airing tonight on TCM at 11:45 EST/8:45 PST

“What we have here is a dirty soap opera. It is dirty because it intends to be, but it is a soap opera only by default. It tries to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography, but fails.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

“Pure trash, based on a trashy book with trashy performances. . . Banal, ignorant and just plain lousy.” – Jay Robert Nash, The Motion Picture Guide

“Dull, sex-teasing, talky, sudser.” – Variety

“Bad as Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls is as a book, the movie Mark Robson has made form it is equally bad or worse. It’s an unbelievably hackneyed and mawkish mishmash of backstage plots and Peyton Place adumbrations.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

As the quotes above illustrate, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) tends to generate strong reactions. Critics generally hated this soapy melodrama when it was originally released and seemed to relish finding new ways to insult the movie as well its audience. Based on Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling gossip-fueled book, the film claimed to illuminate the sleazy side of showbiz with lurid stories about the sexual appetites and drug-habits of its female protagonists who are looking for love, fame and fortune in all the wrong places. Today the uproar over the film and its source material seems rather quaint but contrary to popular belief, the sixties weren’t completely swinging in 1967. There were still plenty of conservative pockets in the country as well as bourgeois intellectuals who balked at the popularity of Susann’s book and were appalled that a Hollywood studio had decided to turn the trashy tell-all into a big budget movie. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is now considered a cult classic. Its fans relish the over-the-top performances and ridiculous dialogue but I think it contains some genuinely great moments and one of the movie’s best scenes features Susan Hayward in a jewel-encrusted paisley pantsuit.


This week on TCM Underground: Hausu (1977) and The House of Seven Corpses (1974)


This weekend on TCM Underground we’re going house to house!


Out For the Count: Fat City (1972)

Fat_City-742983492-largeFat City (1972) is a major bummer in a minor key, detailing the apathetic lives of a couple of down-on-their-luck boxers in Stockton, California. Director John Huston had been trained as a boxer when he was seventeen, and was still friends with some of his fellow pugs from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So he was attracted to Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, which captured the lower levels of the sweet science, of callow kids struggling  their way up the card and punch-drunk veterans close to washing out. The film is as stuck in a haze as its protagonists, with neither attaining sharpness or clarity, both shot in the dusky glow of DP Conrad Hall’s cinematography. All of which can be seen to devastating effect in the beautiful new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives).


James Dean on the Small Screen

blogthiefLong ago, in a former life, I edited a coffee-table book on James Dean called James Dean: Tribute to a Rebel. My favorite part of Dean’s life story was the time he spent in New York during the early days of live television. I thoroughly enjoyed fact-checking and researching his television career, which was not only more extensive than his movie appearances but far more diverse. This Friday, September 25, TCM offers a rare look at some of Dean’s live TV performances.

New York City was the hub of the television industry when Dean moved there to study at the Actors Studio in the fall of 1951. Prime-time programming consisted of weekly anthology dramas, meaning each installment was a new story with a different cast. Anthology series provided substantial work to young writers and a new generation of serious young actors whose careers were jump-started by live TV, including Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman, Martin Landau, Steve McQueen, Eva Marie Saint, and James Dean. The writers socialized together, compared notes, and created a community among themselves, while the actors represented a kind of repertory of talent for television producers and their casting agents.



Pickpocket - French Poster

(Editor’s Note: Pablo Kjolseth unexpectedly found himself on the road assisting with Cory McAbee’s latest film project, so he handed over the reigns for today’s post to Michael J. Casey, film critic and reporter for The Boulder Weekly.)

Above all things, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images simply hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bear a signature style, the mark of a master. Of these 13, TCM is showing five of his most acclaimed works on Sept. 25, and though all of them explore Bresson’s thoughts on style, cinematography and spirituality, none convey his ideas quite like his 1959 masterpiece, Pickpocket. [...MORE]

September 19, 2015
David Kalat
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Projector Love

Above is a picture of one of my most treasured possessions.

Like most items of great value, it isn’t something I bought.

My mother bought this Bell and Howell Regular 8mm home movie projector with her allowance, sometime in the 1950s. She kept good care of it and gave it to me when I was a child, along with a couple of 8mm films to watch on it (a 3 minute-long version of The Thing From Another World, silent and a Keystone comedy with Ben Turpin). I’ve kept good care of it, too, and it’s in pretty much the same condition today it was when she bought it.

My mother didn’t survive as long, not as long as the love of movies she passed on to me, or this handsomely tooled piece of machinery. We built machines differently back then, we built them to last.

I promise, this isn’t one of those “things were better in the old days” nostalgia rants. But, I do find it noteworthy. You see, for most of my viewing I use an HD video projector–I rarely get these gloriously antique projectors out for anything but show. I love my HD projector–its picture is so clean and bright and sharp and colorful, it’s really put me off going to the theater anymore. But my last HD projector (a Panasonic Ptax200U) barely lasted 8 years. At least, I think it died. It got to the point where spending any more money to diagnose what was wrong with it exceeded the cost of just replacing it, so I just installed a new one (a BenQ W1070—— holy Lord this thing is boss). So, yeah—8 measly years. Meanwhile my mother’s B&H projector still runs like new.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of projectors of various gauges. Some of them I did buy, some I just sort of received from people who didn’t want them anymore. All of them are relics of another age, artifacts of an entirely different way of watching movies.



The Comedy Teams That Weren’t, Yet Were

Tonight on TCM, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello team up, as they’re wont to do, for a few Abbott and Costello classics, Hold That Ghost, Buck Privates, and In the Navy.  Abbott and Costello were one of the greatest comedy teams of the classic era but there was plenty of competition.  Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges (the members changed in that one), and the Marx Brothers may be the most familiar (and the Marx Brothers definitely had the best movies, or at least, averaged out over time they did) but there were many others, some making appearances more often than not in otherwise dramatic movies.  One example would be Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who showed up in two non-comedies, The Lady Vanishes and Dead of Night, and were never a comedy team in the sense that they carried their own series of movies like the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello.    But what about the greatest comedy teams of all time that weren’t comedy teams at all but kind of were for at least one great team up.  Sometimes they even tried to have lightning strike twice, and succeeded, still without actually becoming a team.  What am I talking about?  Let’s get started.



Every Dog Must Have His Day


“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight–it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

One of the best new films I’ve seen in recent months is WHITE GOD (2014). This Hungarian production thoughtfully directed by Kornél Mundruczó tells the deeply troubling story of Hagen, a pampered pooch owned by a somewhat aloof thirteen-year-old girl named Lilli (Zsófia Psotta) who is abandoned by Lilli’s callous father and left to fend for himself. We follow the discarded pet on his harrowing journey through the streets of Budapest where he encounters other homeless dogs as well as abusive dogcatchers, cruel butchers and finally bloodthirsty dog handlers who train Hagen to kill. When he eventually escapes his torturers, he is a much meaner animal and forms a pack with other abused canines. In a brutal finale, the dogs roam the city taking revenge on the humans who have tormented them.

The film is weighted with biting social commentary as well as religious and political allegory but at its heart, WHITE GOD is a rather simple and profoundly sad story about a helpless dog that learns he must rely on himself and rebel against authority if he wants to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. It also doubles as a sensitive coming-of-age story about the young dog owner who learns a similar lesson although the perils and circumstances she faces are much more privileged and forgiving.

While watching WHITE GOD I was reminded of a few other films I admire that center around dogs like Hagen who were forced to take similar journeys while suffering the consequences of man’s inhumanity to man and animal alike.

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