We All Go a Little Mad Some Times. . .


TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment brings Psycho to the big screen on September 20 and September 23 at participating theaters. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be presented by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed introduction. While many movie lovers have undoubtedly seen Psycho, rewatch it anew on a big screen with an audience, the way it was intended to be seen.

Every Hitchcock fan—and who isn’t?—has their favorite sequence or scene. Psycho is filled with iconic moments—from Marion’s first appearance in black underwear to her encounter with the cop in shades to the shower scene to the reveal at the end accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking score. My favorite sequence is the parlor scene in which a shy Norman Bates asks Marion to come into the parlor behind the office. As soon as he says “parlor,” think: “Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.”


The Late Career Favorites

Just a couple of days ago I wrote a piece here on last movies that seemed almost intentionally created to be the last work of certain actors.  The Shootist, for instance, doesn’t just seem like the best possible way for John Wayne to go out but the only way for him to go out.  Well, today, I was looking down the schedule for Sunday and saw Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and thought to myself how much I liked it and then thought, why not expand the earlier post to cover a more generalized area: The last ten or fifteen years of a star’s career, theatrical releases, I mean.  No hard and fast rules, since an actor’s career can vary in length by such a great number of years, but generally speaking, a movie considered to be a part of their waning career, not their waxing career.  Olivia de Havilland would make several more movies after 1964 but her heyday was in the thirties and forties and by 1964 she was headed out the door, so to speak.  And, as it turns out, many of my favorite movies in an actor’s career will come near the end of said career.  Maybe not my absolute favorite, but definitely some high ranking ones.

late career 01


September 12, 2015
David Kalat
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The Art of Standing Still

The problem with animated cartoons was baked in on Day One.

Winsor McKay was not the creator of cartoons, but he’s close enough for discussion’s sake. Right away with his inaugural film,, he devotes half the running time to emphasizing how gruelingly hard the whole enterprise is: the months of work, the towering stacks of drawings. Eventually the animation starts, his famous newspaper cartoons spring to life, and all that effort is legitimized. But as thrilling as the fruits of his labors are, he makes sure to keep the labor part of it in full view.

This was the problem: making pictures moves means drawing an absurdly unreasonable number of pictures. As magic tricks go, this one’s nightmarishly hard.

And this sets something of an upper limit to the enterprise: detail-intensive work like this can’t be easily rushed. So, as a business concern, making animated cartoons profitable means one of two things. Either a) upselll the hard work and try to get audiences to pay a premium for the technically difficult work you’re doing, or b) try to find a way to get away with having the pictures not move.

This is the story of Plan B.



The Lasting Last Impression

Sometimes in Hollywood, they start strong and finish strong.  Or they start weak and finish strong or start strong and finish weak.  Given the nature of Hollywood careers, and how tied to an actor’s popularity they can be, the average one wanes long before retirement.  Sometimes tragedy takes an actor from us at the height of their popularity, or at the end of a long and successful career and, as a result, their last movie is a classic.  Today, TCM is showing a couple of movies featuring Judy Holliday, who didn’t finish as strongly as she started before cancer took her life at the far too young age of 43.  She did more stage work than movies and her last film, Bells are Ringing, while good, isn’t up there with her first foray into the cinema, Adam’s Rib, or her second, Born Yesterday, for which she won an Oscar.  When actors leave us too soon, or even late in life after a prolonged illness, their final movie, for better or worse, takes on a greater significance than if they had simply faded way into retirement.



Alberto Vargas in Hollywood


Vargas in his Hollywood studio. The photo was taken sometime during the 1930s.

If you love vintage pin-up art as much as I do you’ll probably recognize Alberto Vargas’s name. Between 1920 and 1975 the Peruvian artist created some of the most celebrated and recognizable pin-up art in America while working for the Ziegfeld Follies as well as Esquire magazine and Playboy. His paintings of ridiculously long-legged, thin-waisted and big-busted beauties known as “Vargas Girls” (or “Varga Girls”) also graced calendars and were favorites among enlisted men during WW2. GIs hung “Vargas Girls” on their lockers and in their barracks, copied them onto the sides of bomber planes and had them tattooed on their bodies.

What classic movie fans might not know is that Alberto Vargas also had a brief but lucrative career in Hollywood painting celebrity portraits, working for film industry magazines and creating movie posters. I enjoy playing detective so I decided to dig through various archives and books in search of Vargas’s film related work and what I found surprised me. The Latin artist made a much bigger impact on Hollywood than I’d previously been led to believe.


This week on TCM Underground: It’s Alive (1974) and Spider Baby (1964)


You may well want to gather the family together for this week’s Turner Classic Movies Underground double-creature-feature: a to-die-for pairing of Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE (1974) and Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1964). Individually, these movies have a lot going for them and inestimable cult movie credibility to boot but taken together they make for a wild night indeed.  [...MORE]

Death Watch: Josef von Sternberg Adapts An American Tragedy (1931)


In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel  An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial.  So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque.  Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.


Appreciating W.C.

blogopenerLast weekend, TCM celebrated W.C. Fields in a tribute titled 100 Years in Film. Fields’ first venture into the movies was a century ago in a one‑reeler titled Pool Sharks (aka The Pool Shark). Fields’s granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields, cohosted the four-film tribute, which included David Copperfield plus the comedian’s three most popular films, It’s a Gift, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, and The Bank Dick.

Though Fields is justly famous for his vocal inflections, making him a perfect performer for talking films, he did appear in a handful of silent films. And, while I love his classics, I also have a fondness for two of his silent films, which I have been lucky enough to see. Sallie of the Sawdust, a film version of the play Poppy, was directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925. Griffith and Fields seem an unlikely creative pairing, but the legendary director rendered the small-town atmosphere perfectly, capturing the warmth and local color of Americana. I remember the imagery and characters made me yearn for an America that has long since passed, or maybe never really existed.

I discovered It’s the Old Army Game while researching movies shot in Florida, a long-time interest for me. The silent comedy stars Fields as a small-town, drug-store owner with the  indecent name of Elmer Prettywillie. Elmer puts up with the idiosyncratic customers who frequent his store, including the matron who wakes him up in the middle of the night for a two cent stamp and the freeloading firemen who always want soda pops on the house. Elmer is ripe for the pickings when a fast talking real estate speculator talks him into a Florida land scheme.


Telluride 2015


Tomorrow TCM hosts its yearly salute to the Telluride Film Festival with 24-hours of TFF-related programming. TCM kicks things off with The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968) and wraps up with China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman, 1978). I’m between film screenings at Telluride now, where the fest is marking its 42nd year as one of the more prestigious film festivals in the nation, and feel obliged to remind readers that one of the reasons TFF is so unique among a mushroom-like proliferation of other movie festivals resides in their dedication to highlighting the legacy of film (with archive prints, restorations of classics – also the reason I’m so fond of the TCM Classic Film Festival) as well as the liberties they afford their guest programmers, who are tasked with selecting overlooked films.   [...MORE]

September 5, 2015
David Kalat
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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)


KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
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