Old and New

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I’m attending the 43rd Telluride Film Festival, where TCM is a Signature Sponsor for the Palm theater. Although there are only three films being screened on 35mm (The Fire Within, The Barefoot Contessa, and Les Enfants Terribles – all part of Volker Schlöndorff’s Guest Director selections), there are plenty of other classics to choose from.

TFF 2016 got off to an early start by screening The Pagnol Trilogy (Marius, Fanny, and César) at the spacious Werner Herzog Theater with all new 4K DCP restorations by Janus Films. The next day had me screening Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928), a 2K restoration from 2004, with live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. At 143 minutes Lang’s money-recouping answer to his money-losing Metropolis strained the patience for some of the younger patrons, a handful who left early – which is too bad because the third act included crashing trains in tight tunnels and a killer clown surrounded by surrealistic props.

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Making the Old Series and Serials New Again

Today on TCM it’s Falcon Day.  All day long, TCM is running The Falcon series from the thirties and forties in which George Sanders and Tom Conway, real life brothers, play the Lawrence brothers, two gentlemen detectives working murder and robbery mysteries as amateurs for the thrill of adventure.  George starred in the first three and then Tom took over for the rest.  It’s a good series and one, like The Saint, which previously starred Sanders, could use a reboot.  The problem is, when it comes to rebooting serials from the thirties and forties, Hollywood has never quite seemed up to the task.

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Preston Sturges: A Poster Gallery

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Preston Sturges directs Harold Llyod & Frances Ramden on the set of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947, aka Mad Wednesday) airing tonight on TCM

“There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing I will make some of them.” – Preston Sturges

The talented director, screenwriter and producer Preston Sturges, was often referred to as a ‘genius’ during his heyday and continues to be lauded as one of the original Hollywood auteurs. Sturges only directed 13 films but he provided screenplays, dialogue and original story ideas for 40 productions between 1930 and 1955. His influence was enormous and today his smart screwball comedies continue to inspire filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Joel and Ethan Coen.

Tonight TCM is airing six of Sturges’ most lauded films beginning with The Lady Eve (1941), a sexy madcap comedy starring Henry Fonda as a naïve Ophidiologist (aka snake expert) who is seduced by a glamorous con artist (Barbara Stanwyck). Afterward you can catch Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1942) playing a Hollywood director who learns about life and love while masquerading as a hobo accompanied by the lovely Veronica Lake. McCrea also appears in The Palm Beach Story (1942) where he plays an indigent inventor trying to stop his wife (Claudette Colbert) from divorcing him. Next up Eddie Bracken, stars in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) as a sickly shipyard employee mistaken for a WWII hero. It’s followed by The Great McGinty (1940) featuring Brian Donlevy as a down-on-his-luck tramp persuaded into a political career by corrupt bosses. The last film airing tonight is The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) starring silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd. Sturges was a great admirer of Lloyd and the director coaxed the funnyman out of retirement to reprise his role from The Freshman (1925).
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We’re Off to See the Zardoz

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In the pantheon of wildly ambitious, certifiably insane major studio films released in the go-for-broke 1970s, few can hold a candle to Zardoz (1974). Director John Boorman was riding high on the success of Warner Bros.’ Deliverance two years before, so he was essentially given free rein to choose whatever story he wanted as long as the budget was right. The 20th Century-Fox production was envisioned by Boorman as his second vehicle with Burt Reynolds, but when the mustachioed superstar proved too ill to sign on, Sean Connery was brought on instead. The result is a hallucinatory and utterly unique fever dream of a film, as much fantasy as sci-fi despite its marketing (perhaps because Boorman was still frustrated at being unable to launch an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings), and once seen, it’s certainly not easy to forget. [...MORE]

End of an Era: Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968) were the last two fiction features that Orson Welles completed. Still to come would be the self-reflective essays of F For Fake (1973) and Filming Othello (’78), as well as the perpetually promised to-be-finished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (1970-’76), but Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story mark an endpoint. Both deal with aging, obsolete men living outside of their times, belonging to previous epochs. In Chimes, Welles’ Falstaff is a ruddy-cheeked representative of the Merrie England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, while his “Mr. Clay” in The Immortal Story is a wealthy Macao merchant who lives inside his account books, completely cut off from the world outside. Chimes at Midnight is the capstone to Welles’ extraordinary career, while The Immortal Story is a dream-like coda. Today both have been released in essential DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion. Chimes at Midnight has never had a satisfactory home video release in the United States until now, subjugated to dupey transfers and muddy audio (always blamed on the original production circumstances, which required extensive dubbing, but the dialogue is crisp and clear on the Criterion disc). Both releases are causes for celebration, and Chimes has pole position for home video release of the year.

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Dementia 13: Coppola’s Graduation Film from “Corman College”

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Francis Ford Coppola cut his teeth in the film industry working for B-movie master Roger Corman as a script doctor, dialogue writer, sound tech, and all-around jack of all trades. As a supplement to Coppola’s education in cinema studies at UCLA, Corman’s tutelage provided a “film education” from a practical perspective. Later, Corman would enhance the educations of other writers and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, Nicolas Roeg, and Jonathan Demme, by hiring them to write, direct, or shoot his B-movies. This combination of formal schooling and “Corman College” gave this group of filmmakers—the Film School Generation—a unique understanding and appreciation of cinema. I can’t help but think that this is what makes the FSG difficult to match in terms of mastery of the medium.

I recently watched Coppola’s debut directorial feature, Dementia 13, for the first time, and I could see the influences of both a formal film education and Corman College.

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A Foreign Affair: An Unexpected Delight

Today is Jean Arthur’s day here at TCM’s Summer Under the Stars and one of her movies playing is A Foreign Affair, from 1948, directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by him, Charles Brackett, and Richard Breen.  Well, it turns out that very movie became one of my unexpected delights a few years back at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD.  It’s a theater that, when I lived there, I went to once a week at least.  Several weeks saw two or three visits by my wife and I but it was guaranteed that at least once a week we would because every Saturday at 11:00 they would run a different movie from the studio period.  For instance, checking out their schedule for next Saturday, they’re running Niagara at 11:00 and the following Saturday, The African Queen.  And, of course, they run new movies from all over the world each and every day as well as special revivals but what I loved about them was that Saturday matinee because there was no fanfare, just a morning movie from the past.  My wife and I would often show up without even checking the schedule.  One day, we showed up and A Foreign Affair was playing.  Neither of us had ever seen it, nor heard anything about it from anyone we knew so we were going to see it totally fresh and, lucky for us, on the big screen just as intended.  We loved it.  I haven’t seen it since.  Why?  I don’t want to break the spell.

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Karloff: The Past to the Present

Many actors spanned the silents to sound, some with great success than others.  Some had careers so all-encompassing, Lillian Gish comes to mind, that it’s hard to even fathom an actor today going through the same amount of period adjustment.  But the one who had the most impact on me when I was young was Boris Karloff.  When I was a kid, viewing old horror movies was something each weekend brought without fail.  No Saturday ever went by, it seemed, without my local station running an old Universal or Hammer movie in the afternoon, especially in the fall.  The star of many of those movies was Boris Karloff and he connected the past to the present in several ways as my film knowledge expanded.

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A Grand & Moving Thing: The King and I (1956)

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Yul Brynner in The King and I. TCM & Fathom Events are screening this classic musical on August 28 and 31 in select theaters across the U.S.

“If you live long enough and you’re lucky you may get the chance to see two or three originals in your lifetime.”
- TV commercial advertising the 1982 stage production of The King and I at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre

In December of 1982 I was given a ticket to see Yul Brynner perform The King and I at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It was a birthday gift from my mother who knew how much I loved the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and Yul Brynner. I was a hard-to-please adolescent and I’d never had the opportunity to see a big Broadway production before but at the time I was studying dance and trying to figure out if I wanted to pursue a career in theatre, music or writing. You all know what I eventually decided to do but seeing Brynner on stage in the role he made famous was one of the most electrifying and downright amazing experiences of my life.

At age 62, the bronze and barrel-chested actor was still a charismatic and commanding performer. A true ‘original’ as the commercial for The King and I advertised who had created the character of King Mongkut on stage in 1951 before bringing him to the screen in 1956. A year after I watched Brynner belt out “Shall We Dance?” he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died in 1985 following a hugely successful return to live theatre. His death devastated me but Brynner remains immortal in my mind thanks to his unforgettable appearances in a number of great films.

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Father of Fear

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This Friday, August 26, finds TCM’s Summer under the Stars getting a little chillier than usual with an all-day marathon covering the career of horror icon Boris Karloff from the dawn of cinema’s sound era in the revolutionary FRANKENSTEIN (1931) through his elder statesman phase of the horror genre in Roger Corman’s THE TERROR (1963).

However, I’m zooming in on the last film in the Karloff filmography airing that day (and repeating again on Halloween if you miss it!) — and one that’s especially close to my heart since it’s the first film I remember scaring me on TV (courtesy of a TBS airing many years ago). BLACK SABBATH (1963) is the only anthology film directed by the great Mario Bava and Karloff’s sole excursion into Italian horror. Karloff plays a key role in the longest and most elaborate of the three stories, “The Wurdulak,” and also serves as the onscreen host tying all three tales together. What’s fascinating and well covered by now is the fact that Karloff actually shot his narrator duties twice, with the Italian and American prints featuring entirely different presentations. The Italian version also adds a lighthearted coda with Karloff astride a wooden horse used for one of his earlier scenes, pulling back to show the film crew in a delightful, barrier-shattering flourish. [...MORE]

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