A Trio of Titanics

Early today TCM is showing Titanic from 1953 starring Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, and today’s star of the day Thelma Ritter as Maude Young, a fictionalized version of Molly Brown.  The tragic events of the night of April 14, 1912 have inspired many a filmmaker to add their own touch to the story.  It’s appeared in theatrical cameos (Calvalcade, Time Bandits), television movies (S.O.S. Titanic), television miniseries (the 2012 Titanic), German propaganda (the 1943 Nazi produced Titanic), computer games (Titanic: Adventure Out of Time), fictionalized spy thrillers (the none too thrilling Raise the Titanic) and, of course, full-blown Hollywood period productions.   It’s that last category I’ll deal with for this post.



Brainquake: The Lost Novel by Samuel Fuller



“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.


Generation Clash: ‘The Happening’

happosterAccording to the film history books, 1967 was a seminal year for the Film School Generation because of three movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate. The films’ departure from the conventions of Hollywood’s classic narrative style in story and technique combined with their counter-culture perspective was considered revolutionary. Because of their critical and box-office success, this trio of high-profile films announced to the world that there was a new sheriff in town.

However, other films released that year were just as modern and provocative, including Point Blank, Fearless Vampires Killers, Two for the Road, and In Cold Blood. Even fluff such as Thoroughly Modern Millie seemed modern in its self-reflexive comedy and spoofing of the musical genre. It is also important to remember that in 1967 the studios were still releasing conventional Hollywood movies with big-name stars and happy endings, such as War Wagon, Camelot, Barefoot in the Park, and Doctor Dolittle—hopelessly out of date in any year!

While it is helpful for film history books to draw a clean line between traditional Hollywood and the Film School “brats”, in truth, the era was much messier. The conventions of the old and the innovations of the new were not so clearly delineated, nor did they seamlessly merge. Instead, they often clashed or awkwardly overlapped. One of the clumsiest attempts to address the aesthetics and themes of the 1960s is The Happening, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of Summer Under the Stars: Faye Dunaway. Released in March 1967, The Happening represents Dunaway’s second film, though she may have shot it before Hurry Sundown, which was in theaters a month earlier. I recommend The Happening, not because it is a good film but because it is a fascinating—if inane—marker of its era.


In through the Out Door

Today is John Hodiak’s day here on TCM and one of the movies showing later tonight is The Arnelo Affair, which I just happened to write up for TCM recently. One of the first things I mention in the article is the framing of the film’s timeline. It takes a familiar convention in noir, the flashback, and pushes it just a bit further. Rather than hold out on any plot reveals until the end, it tells us upfront that Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak) killed his girlfriend and planted Anne Parkson’s (Frances Gifford) compact at the scene to blame her. We know who killed who and who’s being set up right from the start. The suspense comes from wondering how straight-laced Anne ever got involved with this shady gangster in the first place. It works even as the movie itself is a bit lackluster but the question is how necessary is it? Do flashbacks provide a deeper understanding of the characters or are they just techniques to get the story moving?



August 16, 2014
David Kalat
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Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.


KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall

My first suicide

Peter Duel

Do you ever finally reach a point of knowing?
Or do you just wake up one day and say “I’m going”?
- Cowboy Junkies, “Good Friday”

If you begin reading about Hollywood and its stars at a tender age then at some point very early on you learn about suicide. I’m pretty sure my first suicide was Pete Duel, an agreeable young actor who had enjoyed important roles in such unimportant movies as THE HELL WITH HEROES (1968) with Rod Taylor and GENERATION (1969) with David Janssen but experienced greater success on the small screen. The Rochester, New York native (born Peter Ellstrom Deuel in 1940) had parlayed a recurring role as Sally Field’s brother-in-law on GIDGET (1965-1966) into a lead on the equally short-lived Screen Gems/ABC sitcom LOVE ON A ROOFTOP (1966-1967) before Universal offered him a long-term contract. His big break was being cast as Old West outlaw Hannibal Hayes on the weekly BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) cash-in ALIAS SMITH AND JONES (1971-1973). My sister Cheri was a big fan of Duel, who got a lot of play in the teen magazines of the day, and she was horrified and dispirited when the news came in over the transom that on New Year’s Eve 1971 he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That’s a tough way to lose a crush. I can’t recall what my specific reaction was, at the age of ten, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “People do that?” [...MORE]

Memories of Lauren Bacall 1924-2014


Film fans have endured a rough summer. We’ve lost many talented people who have brought us immeasurable joy. Today I’d like to celebrate the late great Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall who mesmerized audiences with her incredible beauty, quick wit, smoky voice and sultry style. She was a beloved stage and screen actress but she was also much more including an award-winning writer, a socially conscious political activist, an avid fashion enthusiast who designed her own maternity clothes and a survivor who out-lived two husbands (Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards) and managed to raise three children on her own. What follows is a stunning gallery of portraits as well as a collection of personal observations about Bacall from friends, acquaintances and family members who knew her and loved her.


Before They Knew What to do with Them

Have you ever watched a television show from start to finish, in real time (as opposed to “binge time”), over the course of several seasons, and when you finally go back and see the first season again, everything feels wrong? As you were watching it, everything seemed fine and appeared to be transitioning from one season to the next without incident. Only when you look back do you realize how much the characters changed as, over the years, the writers, producers, and directors realized the actors’ strengths and weaknesses and adjusted the characters accordingly. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, each misstep, each poorly targeted joke or action, seems magnified because of what the character became. The same thing happens in the movies, with actors’ careers. At the beginning, they do something that makes them a star but when we look back years later, it feels all wrong for them.



Shall We Dance: Step Up All In


“I wanted to show great dancing and inventive choreography without too much cutting, without chopping it up too much. Good dancing should speak for itself. Watch old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movies – a loose head-to-toe shot and very few edits. It’s so restrained and elegant!” -Trish Sie, director of Step Up All In

The durable Step Up franchise released its fifth entry over the weekend, a giddy 3D extravaganza subtitled All In. In these Rob Marshall-marred times, the series is the closest thing we have to the spectacular musicals of the classical era. That is, they hire people who know how to dance…and let them dance. No celebrities here, just kids who can move. Producer Adam Shankman said, “What’s nice about these movies is, they don’t need stars. They just need people who can do everything.”  This keeps costs down and has the added benefit of promoting young talent. Channing Tatum started off his career in the first Step Up, and Summit Entertainment is now placing their bets on Ryan Guzman, a Mexican-American actor who comes from a modeling and MMA background. Guzman adapted his cage fighting agility to the dance floor, and while he may never develop Tatum’s natural charisma, he has effortlessly meshed with the pro hoofers on the set. And the directors have respected their movements. All In was directed by Trish Sie, a dancer and choreographer who has worked for Pilobolus and those OK GO music videos (the lead singer’s her brother). She takes a distanced approach, allowing the performances to take place almost entirely in long master shots, privileging the dancers and the choreography of Dondraco Johnson, Christopher Scott, and Jamal Sims. Sie shows great faith in her dancers and collaborators, as well as the intelligence of her audience. The result is a joyous mix of old-school craft and angular modern dance styles.


Try Remembering These Titles

Theater marquees are not what they used to be. Cineplexes don’t use traditional marquees, instead opting for an electronic marquee above the heads of the ticket sellers. The mini-marquees list all of movies playing and their showtimes, with any long titles shortened to the first few words. When I worked at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago, there was still an old-fashioned marquee in front of the building. Each week, the projectionist used a long-armed grabber to place the letters side by side one at a time until the entire title was spelled out. Unusual titles, which used a lot of the same vowels, or long titles were always a conundrum. I am sure that throughout the history of film exhibition, extra long titles also proved to be nightmares for press agents and publicists, who had to persuade newspapers to run the titles in ads, not to mention poster illustrators, who had to squeeze these titles into attention-grabbing designs.




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